MONTREAL — When the Montreal Impact debuted 25 years ago, no one was sure what to make of the club or the American Professional Soccer League they were playing in.
But as the APSL morphed into the A-League and then the USL First Division, the Impact became one of the best teams with the biggest crowds, winning three championships in the so-called second division before they entered Major League Soccer in 2012.
On Monday, when the Los Angeles Galaxy visit Saputo Stadium, the club will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its first home game — a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the Claude Robillard Centre on May 21, 1993.
“It was a new thing,” said Nick Dasovic, the former Canadian international defender who scored a goal for Montreal that day. ”The Canadian Soccer League had just folded.
“It was an unknown league, a joint U.S.-Canadian league. At the time, it was the top level in North America. A lot of players went on to MLS.”
Dasovic, now a televison commentator, doesn’t remember much about the game itself, however.
“But I didn’t score a lot of goals, so I remember that,” he joked.
Montreal native Cameron Walker also had a goal while Italian veteran Nicola Zanone, one of a pair of Europeans brought in to bolster the lineup along with Frenchman Patrice Ferri, scored twice.
The Impact was made up largely of players from the Montreal Supra, who had lasted three seasons in the CSL. The majority of the players were Canadian, many of them local.
Also in the first game was midfielder Nick De Santis, who later coached the club to an A-League title and is now a team vice-president. Mauro Biello, the club’s all-time scoring and games-played leader who coached them in MLS, was on the team but wasn’t dressed that day.
On a sadder note, the anniversary falls less than a month after the death of midfielder Pierre-Richard Thomas, who was in the starting 11.
Some now in the local soccer media, like Lloyd Barker, Grant Needham, John Limniatis and Rudy Doliscat, were on the 1993 squad. Others came from the outside, like Dasovic, goalkeeper Pat Harrington and defenders Dino Lopez and Jason De Vos, who is now director of development for Soccer Canada.
De Vos watched the game from the bench, where he spent the first four games until he asked coach Eddie Firmani either to use him or let him go elsewhere. He was on the pitch next game.
“It was an important part of my development,” said De Vos. “I was only 19.
“The demise of the CSL the previous year meant I didn’t have a pro team to play for. Then, lo and behold, the Impact offer came up.”
For Canadian players, the Impact and an even older club, the Vancouver Whitecaps (then called the 86ers), represented a chance to play pro soccer at home, a prospect that looked doomed when the CSL folded in 1992.
“I wouldn’t have had a career if not for (owner) Joey Saputo and the Impact giving the opportunity for Canadian players to play,” said De Vos.
For the same reason, both ex-players are excited about the Canadian Premier League, a national circuit expected to begin play next year. The MLS clubs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver only use a few Canadians each with any regularity.
Dasovic, who went on to play for Stade Briocin in France’s second division and St. Johnstone in Scotland before ending his career with the Whitecaps, opted to join Montreal after playing for North York in the CSL.
He liked that Firmani played “attractive football” and that he’d get regular playing time on a team with relatively good crowd support in a city he liked for its European feel.
In only their second season, with Valerio Gazzola as coach, the Impact won the APSL title. Striker Jean Harbour, a member of the Rowdies in 1993, scored the championship-winning goal for Montreal.
Things have been gloomier of late, with the Impact off to a 3-8-0 start under new coach Remi Garde, the former Olympique Lyonnais boss who is still in rebuilding mode after the team missed the playoffs in 2017. Saputo went into the dressing room to tell the players their 2-0 loss at home to Philadelphia last week was unacceptable and embarassing.
Dasovic remembers happier times.
“We’d have been nothing without the support of Joey and the Saputo family,” he said. “The money they put behind us, the trips to Italy.
“They’re going through a tough time now. It’ll take Garde some time, but he’s a respected coach. I don’t think there’s anything to panic about.”