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December 10, 1992, the news spreads through the media. The Saputo Group acquires an APSL franchise. Montreal becomes the second Canadian city to join the league after Vancouver.
February 2, 1993, at a press conference held at the Château Vaudreuil Sheraton, the Saputo family, owners of a franchise in the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), unveil the name of the club (Impact), its colours (blue, white and black) and the identity of its first ever head coach: Eddie Firmani.
Firmani managed the Manic in the NASL, during the 1981 and 1982 seasons. “If I accepted the job to manage the Impact, it is because of the Saputo family and also because Montreal is like a second home to me,” explains the man nicknamed The One and Only.
Head coach Eddie Fermani
The Impact general director is Pino Asaro, who held the same position with the defunct FC Supra.
It is expected that players from the Supra will make up the backbone of the new team. However, these players have to wait for the Canadian Soccer Association to decide on their contractual status as the Canadian Soccer League ceased operation, but was replaced by the Canadian National Soccer League (semi-pro). “We are all anxious to get things going,” says defender Patrick Diotte at the time.
Eddie Firmani selects Pierre Mindru and Paolo Ferrante as assistant coaches while Francis Millien will supervise the development of young players.
Finally released from their contracts with the FC Supra at the end of March, goalkeepers Pat Harrington and Djamel Laarabi, defenders Patrick Diotte, André Belotte and Pierre-Richard Thomas, midfielders Marco Rizi, Abdel Sahrane, Rudy Doliscat and Otmane Ibrir, as well as forward Cameron Walker sign with the Impact before the start of the season.
Then, the club offers contract to two local players: midfielder Abdel Bahri and forward Robbie Gasparini.
Training camp takes place in Florence, Italy, for a period of 15 days, before returning to Montreal. “This camp was a lot more pleasure than work,” said Rudy Doliscat. “And we ate like kings!”
The Impact signs two foreign players, Italian Nicola Zanone and France’s Patrice Ferri whose pedigree includes 199 games in Ligue 1 in France, including among other clubs, Olympique Lyonnais, and another 60 or so matches in Ligue 2. “After almost 10 years in first division, I was looking for a new experience,” explains Ferri.
Three Canadian players were also signed by the Impact. Forward Lloyd Barker, midfielder Nick Dasovic and central defender Jason deVos, who go on to have long careers in pro soccer.
The first ever Impact game was played on May 14 in Los Angeles against another expansion team, the Los Angeles Salsa. Dino Lopez becomes the first player to score a goal in an Impact uniform. The Salsa wins the game in penalties.
Just 24 hours later, the Impact is shutout by the Colorado Foxes, defending APSL champions.
At the team’s first ever home opener, on May 21, the Impact wins its first game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a historic first victory thanks to a brace scored by Italian forward Nicolas Zanone in front of 5,380 spectators at the Claude-Robillard Sports Complex.
At the end of May, the team comes to terms with John Limniatis, a Montreal born player of Greek descent, who spent the previous four seasons in Greece’s first division with Aris Salonika. “John’s name was at the top of our list and priorities for the Impact’s future,” says director general Pino Asaro. Between club and player, it is the start of a long, successful but sometimes chaotic association.
The Impact then experiences a strange period in its season. Three consecutive shutout losses followed by seven straight victories, a record that was duplicated on four occasions, but never broken over the 20 year history of the club.
The Impact trades its first ever goal scorer (Lopez) to Toronto in exchange for forward Grant Needham, which brought immediate dividends to the club, scoring a goal in each of his first five games.
Then, at the very beginning of July, the Impact adds a trio of players to its roster: Nigerian forward Folorunso Okenla, local forward Arthur Calixte and American midfielder Warren Dupont.
As of mid-July, the Impact is forced to play without Limniatis and Dasovic, both called for Canadian national team duty, for the Gold Cup tournament and then for a home and away series against Australia, determining which team would get a spot in the final phase of the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the US. Their absence, combined with the loss of Needham a short while later, is felt immediately.
The pleasant sequence of seven straight victories gave the team hope for the playoffs, but those hopes were put to an abrupt stop.
Contrary to expectations, the Impact fell at home to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in mid-July, after the Florida side lost its six previous games.
The wheels then fall off for the Impact. Sitting in fourth place at the time, the team’s schedule is difficult from that point on. Seven of its last 10 games of the season bring the top three teams in the APSL as opponents: the Vancouver 86ers, the Colorado Foxes and the Los Angeles Salsa.
The results are predictable. The Impact loses seven of its final 10 games and concludes its inaugural season in the basement of the APSL’s regular season standings, while Canadian rival Vancouver 86ers finishes as regular season champs.
Nevertheless, better days are still to come. The support for the club results in an average attendance of 4,500 spectators per game and the team has a good nucleus of players in place - a solid base for the next season. President Joey Saputo hopes to see “an explosive Impact” side, particularly on offence.
Surprisingly, the year the Montreal Impact comes to existence is the same season in which Bill Sage, commissioner of the APSL, is given the responsibility of establishing a new, first division North American professional soccer league by Alan Rothenberg, president of the US Soccer Federation, in preparation for the 1994 World Cup held in the United States.
There is talk of Montreal joining that new league in which case the Impact’s budget would go from $850,000 to more than $2 million. “This does not scare me,” says Joey Saputo.
This initiative also incites the Impact’s president to declare in August 1993: “I am convinced that we will be embarking on a project that will mean the true renaissance of soccer in North America.”
We all know what followed…
Giuseppe-Saputo Trophy: Patrice Ferri