Despite making the playoffs for the first time since joining Major League Soccer, Montreal Impact's 2013 season ended with a massive letdown. It wasn't just the 3-0 loss at Houston in the Eastern Conference Knockout Round that hurt; it was the manner of the defeat and the total loss of discipline.
As the team prepares to head to Orlando for the final stage of their training camp, there is a different feel around the Impact squad following the appointment of new head coach Frank Klopas to replace the fiery Swiss manager Marco Schallibaum.
"Frank is settling in. He has put certain messaging and systems in place," Impact sporting director Nick De Santis said on TSNFC this week. "We made the right decision to move forward and go in a different direction and up until now, we have a very good relationship with Frank. We know what he wants and he knows what we want."
"If we go back to that game in Houston, the result, the actions by certain players can give you an idea of what went on for the last two months, the last 10 games of the season. It was very frustrating."
"In my position and in Joey's (Impact president Joey Saputo) position, the easiest thing to do was to reconfirm Marco because we set out our objectives at the beginning of the season and we met those objectives – being in the playoffs, winning the Canadian Championship – but when you are making decisions of what is best for the club going forward and what's best for the players, we felt that we needed to go in a different direction."
With just over three weeks until the Impact open up the 2014 season, and after a quiet offseason in terms of player signings, De Santis says the club is still looking to add "one or two pieces" to the team. It seems the club is close to announcing the signing of young Uruguayan striker Santiago Gonzalez, who De Santis first met in Argentina on a scouting trip in November.
"I managed to see him in my last trip to Argentina and watched him live," De Santis told TSNFC. "He's a young player but a player with certain qualities that I think can help our team get better up front. We're still dealing with a few issues but we're hoping that is something that can get done, hopefully even before we get to Orlando on the weekend."
While Montreal's squad hasn't seen as many additions as most teams across MLS, De Santis believes some of the players they have retained from last year will be in a better position to produce top quality performances on a consistent basis.
"Hernan Bernadello played half a season last year and I think now you can say that he's basically a new addition because the first six months was an adaptation period. With him now being with the team from day one, he will bring a lot more to the table. We have Nelson Rivas healthy and hopefully we can manage him well and he can give us a good amount of games because when he is on the field feeling well physically and with his head in the right place, he can be a dominant defender in this league."
On Monday, the Impact announced the return of Argentine midfielder Andres Romero, who joins the team on loan from Brazilian club Tombense for the second successive season. Romero showed glimpses of his ability in 2013, scoring two goals in 30 regular season appearances, but De Santis expects there is much more to come this season from the former Argentina U20 international.
"We're happy that Romero is back because he is another player that showed very good signs in certain moments," said De Santis. "When his wife gave birth to twins, she went back to Argentina and that's when we saw his consistency level had gone down. We just want to make sure now that he's in the best environment for him to be as consistent as possible."
With other teams getting much stronger during the offseason, the Eastern Conference will be a fierce battleground in 2014. Repeating the accomplishment of making the playoffs will be a difficult task for Montreal, but with the core of a squad that led the East on a number of occasions throughout the first half of the 2013 season, the Impact feel they are well positioned to hit the ground running when their season opens in Dallas on March 8.