MONTREAL—Stade Saputo means everything to the Montreal Impact. It is their true home and central to growing the soccer culture in the region. And while archrival Toronto FC spoiled the sold-out 2016 Stade Saputo opener on Saturday, the Impact expect good times to return.
Stade Saputo is becoming a cathedral for the beautiful game. It is now the only soccer-specific stadium for Canadian MLS teams since BMO Field will now be shared between TFC and the Toronto Argonauts. And it has a natural grass pitch—what soccer is supposed to be played on.
When the Impact speak about Stade Saputo, one word always comes up— intimacy.
“At 20,800, there’s really a feeling of intimacy because the last row here is not very high. It’s like half-way at the Bell Centre,” Impact executive vice-president Richard Legendre told Epoch Times.
To create that intimacy, fans are relatively close to the players on the pitch, can feel their emotions, and can better support them.
“This is home. This is home. This is home,” said Montreal’s Patrice Bernier emphatically. “This is a place where, when you play, there is a closeness with the fans. It’s intimate and we have a tendency to play very well here at home.”
“You feel more engaged with the fans than you do at Olympic Stadium for sure,” said Harry Shipp, playing in his first season with the Impact after being acquired from Chicago. The Impact’s first two home games were played at the “Big O,” just a stone’s throw away from Stade Saputo.
Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush says the atmosphere is much better at Stade Saputo than at Olympic Stadium. “Olympic Stadium is good when you get over 40,000, but that’s a rare occasion.
“Here you feel the energy as soon as you walk in the building, especially with the sellout like today.”
Soccer Culture Growing
As in 2012—the Impact’s inaugural MLS season—the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the playoffs. But Legendre doesn’t feel that’s a factor boosting the fans’ enthusiasm for the football club.
“More and more, we’re making our place,” Legendre said. “I don’t think it’s because of the Canadiens quite frankly.”
“I would attribute it more to the team, the results last year. Of course, the arrival of Didier Drogba.”
Last year, Montreal reached the MLS playoffs for the second time in its four-year history and won two playoff games before being eliminated by Columbus in the conference semifinal.
About a year ago, it pulled off a much bigger feat in reaching the CONCACAF Champions League final. Drogba’s signing last summer was another coup as the Ivorian is one of the biggest and most recognizable names in international football. It didn’t hurt that he tore up the league with 11 goals in 11 games.
“You can see now that the people in Montreal, they get it more and more. They like their team and the soccer culture is really developing,” said Legendre.
This year, season ticket sales are up about 50 percent from last year (9,000, up from about 6,300). Saturday’s derby against TFC marked the first Stade Saputo opener sellout. “We see progress. That’s clear,” Legendre said.
Seating 20,801, Stade Saputo is one of the smaller venues in MLS, but unlike BMO Field, there are no expansion plans, according to Legendre.
“Our tickets are very accessible, so we need fill the stadium regularly and then we see how we increase revenues,” he said. There’s always the cavernous Olympic Stadium if weather’s a problem or if additional seating capacity is needed.
The Impact, under coach Mauro Biello, had a perfect 9–0–0 record at home, whether it be Olympic Stadium or Stade Saputo. And Montreal beat Toronto twice at home in a four-day span last October to end the regular season and begin the playoffs.
So Saturday’s 2–0 loss to a defensively resolute TFC comes as a shock result. After allowing the most goals in the league last year, the Reds have allowed the fewest so far this year, while playing all seven of their games on the road.
“The performance today was maybe, arguably our best performance we’ve had in two years in terms of front to back defensive organization,” said TFC coach Greg Vanney.
UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre was on hand to ring Montreal’s goal bell for every Impact goal, but TFC never gave him the chance. Stade Saputo didn’t get its wish.
“I’m sure that if we would’ve scored early in this game, the stadium would have erupted,” Biello said. “But for us, we’re happy to be back here. We’ve got a great stadium, we’ve got great fans.
“We’re going to bounce back from this.”
“It’s a bad day today, but there will be better days in the rest of the season,” Bernier said.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports