After starting from nothing 18 years ago, the Montreal Impact's signing of one of Italy's most prolific scorers in its history is a remarkable success.
They just couldn’t help themselves.
When club president Joey Saputo and sporting director Nick De Santis introduced Marco Di Vaio - the Montreal Impact’s first ever designated player - in a press conference on Monday, they were smiling from ear to ear.
The smiles were more forced and deliberate when head coach Jesse Marsch was presented last August. The appointment was a logical choice - it’s been a good one too - but you just never know exactly what you’re going to get with a guy who’s coaching for the first time.
In Di Vaio, the Impact knew exactly what they were getting: an experienced player, an exemplary leader and a proven goal scorer. But the satisfaction over the Roman's arrival isn't just limited to the player's profile and qualities. The signing marks a whole new height for the club and illustrates just how far the Impact have come.
“If you look back at where we were 18 years ago and where we are today, it’s unbelievable to see where we’ve come as a club,” said Saputo to the assembled reporters. “All the hard work that’s been done over the last 18 years to be able to get a player like Marco Di Vaio, to be able to go to Europe and the club is well established and well known, I think it’s fantastic.”
It is amazing to think that, ten years ago, the Impact were playing at Claude Robillard - they use it now as a practice facility - and seemed in a sort of perpetual state of limbo in North America’s dire and especially unstable second division.
Today, the Impact are in MLS, have games televised in high definition and have an expanded 20,000-seat soccer specific Saputo Stadium that’s just about complete. And even just going back to last year, the Impact have made tremendous progress.
The case of De Santis is just one example.
Ten months ago, with the Impact having one of its worst ever seasons in the second division, Montreal’s foremost supporters group, the Ultras, were calling for De Santis to resign, labelling him as the “architect of a disaster.”
The relationship between the fans and the upstairs management was at an all time low.
In completely opposite contrast, the De Santis at Monday’s press conference was a whole different person than the much maligned executive of last summer. He’s more confident in himself and in what he’s doing, he’s learned a lot about the league, he’s made some very good contacts abroad, he’s brought in a strong staff, signed very good foreign players, and successfully attracted an excellent designated player.
It hasn’t all been perfect – the Ali Gerba situation is a case in point – but the trust between the fans and the administration has been completely restored and that’s been fundamental for both the image and progress of the club.
But if there is one measure of how far the Impact have come, it is in the ever growing passion exhibited by their fans. Who would have thought ten years ago that over 200 fans would show up one day at Trudeau Airport to greet a star forward from across the pond?
While a soccer culture is emerging in the city, Saputo is well aware that there is still a long road ahead.
“The ride’s been great,” Saputo said. “But we still have a lot more work to do.”
Some of the things on the Impact's check list for the coming years include: the expansion of the academy and the development of local talent into MLS quality players, the building of a professional training facility and, of course, making the so far elusive - for Canadian teams - playoffs and winning MLS Cup.
Whether any of that will happen remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: they’ve come a long way.
Nick Sabetti covers the Montreal Impact for Goal.com Canada.