SPORTS

Impact set sights on MLS playoffs after major off-season changes

03/05/2015 04:48 EST | Updated 05/05/2015 05:59 EDT
MONTREAL - There is a new look and a new-found enthusiasm on the Montreal Impact.

After finishing last in Major League Soccer at 6-18-10 in 2014, the Impact made wholesale changes in the off-season that they hope will make them a stronger defensive side with more depth at all positions.

Early indications were promising as the Impact won their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final against Pachuca of Mexico this week. There were seven newcomers in the starting 11 for both legs of the quarter-final, including a totally rebuilt back line.

They struggled at times, but managed to pull it out thanks to a goal in the final seconds of added time by an unexpected hero, rookie striker Cameron Porter.

"What the club has done with bringing guys in this off-season is incredible," said goalkeeper Evan Bush. "There was a lack of chemistry in the first game, but to push through and get the result was pretty outstanding."

The Impact have 12 new players, although one of them, fullback Ambroise Oyongo, has yet to report after he was acquired in a trade with the New York Red Bulls.

The goal was to tighten the defence on a team that allowed 58 goals in 34 games in 2014 and was especially vulnerable on set pieces. The club also went the entire season without a victory on the road.

Hence the changes, as goalie Troy Perkins, defenders Matteo Ferrari, Heath Pearce, Futty Danso, Karl Ouimette and Krzysztof Krol and midfielders Felipe Martins, Gorka Larrea and Issey Nakajima-Farran moved on. Star striker Marco Di Vaio retired.

Bush took over from Perkins as the go-to man in goal midway through last season and will begin the season as the starter for the first time in five years in Montreal. Eric Kronberg is the new back-up.

The key off-season signing was Belgian international defender Laurent Ciman, who was impressive in a central pairing with former Chicago Fire back Bakary Soumare.

They had new fullbacks Donny Toia and Victor Cabrera on the flanks, although Toia will likely take a seat if speedy left back Oyongo ever reports. The Cameroon international's handlers are disputing the Red Bulls right to trade the player.

Veteran Hassoun Camara and sophomore Eric Miller provide fullback depth.

There is also a new holding midfield pairing with veteran Nigel Reo-Coker and former Italian Serie-A player Marco Donadel in the team's usual 4-2-3-1 formation. It appears that 2012 draft pick Calum Mallace has become the first choice as substitute at that position ahead of team captain and local favourite Patrice Bernier.

Attacking midfielders Ignacio Piatti, the team's offensive motor and lone designated player, Justin Mapp, Andres Romero and Dilly Duka are back, with added depth from former Red Bull Eric Alexander and youngster Blake Smith.

Jack McInerney was expected to take over from Di Vaio as the striker, but newly acquired Dominic Oduro started both Champions League matches.

And Porter, a third round draft pick who was not expected to make the club, not only went into both matches as a substitute, but scored the series-winning goal. Porter has passed Romario Williams, who was selected third overall, on the depth chart.

The challenge for returning coach Frank Klopas is to keep everybody happy. Players like Bernier, Camara and McInerney are unused to extended time on the bench.

"We had some quality players last year," said Klopas. "Everything didn't go the way we wanted it to, but we had a plan. We made changes.

"More than anything was the depth on the team. We have high expectations and we need to rely on all the players. I keep telling them they have to be patient. We have big games coming up."

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