Offseason makeovers transform semifinalists
Mauro Biello joined the Montreal Impact when the club was an expansion team in 1993. He was only 20 years old then, a kid. Sixteen seasons and 300-plus matches later, he has literally grown up with the team.
"You can play pretty soccer, but if you don't get the W, [fans] aren't happy," the 36-year-old midfielder says. "There's pressure to win here and when you come home from a road trip at 2-6-2, it's a big problem."
That was the Impact's record after a 3-1 loss June 7 at Charleston, and that came after a loss and two draws in the first three matches at Stade Saputo, the club's new 13,000-seat stadium. Predictably, the natives were restless.
So Montreal made a move that shocked the rest of the USL First Division, but came as little surprise to Biello, its captain and former MVP. Fifth-year coach Nick DeSantis stepped down to become the club's technical director and John Limniatis, like DeSantis a former Impact star, took the reins.
Despite a hiccup -- consecutive home losses to Miami and Seattle in July -- Montreal went 10-6-4 under its new coach. It outlegged Vancouver and Toronto FC to earn Canada's spot in the CONCACAF Champions League and came from behind last weekend to edge No. 6 Seattle (4-3 aggregate) in the first round of the USL First Division playoffs.
The third-seeded Impact (13-13-6) face No. 2 Vancouver (15-8-8) this weekend in the USL semifinals. In the other two-game, aggregate-goal series, No. 1 Puerto Rico (15-6-9) plays No. 4 Rochester (12-11-9).
"I don't think Nick or any of the players thought this was a last-place team, but there was concern," Biello said about Montreal's sluggish start.
He said it was DeSantis' decision to move to the front office, and Biello would know. DeSantis is his brother-in-law, a man who guided the Impact in his rookie year as coach in 2004 to its first league title since 1994.
Similarly, Vancouver and Rochester made coaching changes last offseason that have worked out well.
Teitur Thordarson, 56, replaced USL veteran Bob Lilley for the Whitecaps and Darren Tilley, 41, took over for Laurie Calloway with the Rhinos, whose tumultuous offseason included an ownership change.
Vancouver won the USL crown in 2006, the franchise's first championship since 1979 in the North American Soccer League, and last year finished seventh before losing in the first round of the playoffs. But after four seasons, Lilley was out as coach.
Vancouver general manager Bob Lenarduzzi said Lilley helped "re-establish some of the professionalism that we may have been lacking," but the Whitecaps needed someone who had more experience developing a productive youth academy system.
Thordarson, a native of Iceland, had done just that coaching two clubs for 11 years in Norway, and the Whitecaps started a residency program for youth players in September 2007.
"Obviously, we want to win but we also want to develop players," said Lenarduzzi, whose club started its "Vision 2011" initiative even before MLS announced it plans to expand that year.
Vancouver's MLS bid is backed by two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, who grew up in that area playing basketball and soccer with his brother, current Caps midfielder Martin Nash.
Just finding players was Tilley's chief concern when he arrived in Rochester, where he was a key scorer on Rhinos teams that won the 1998 A-League and 1999 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles.
But Rochester also almost didn't even field a team this season. The club's former ownership group lost control of the franchise in January after defaulting on more than $10 million in loans, and new owner Rob Clark didn't buy the Rhinos until mid-March. Six weeks before the regular season and just a week before training camp, Tilley was hired after Clark didn't renew Calloway's contract.
"We played a boring style of soccer and needed to upgrade," said Clark, 35, a businessman from Utica, N.Y. "Plus, Darren is part of our tradition."
It was Tilley's hat trick that powered a 3-1 win over Minnesota in the 1998 league title game. A native of England, he had interviewed for an assistant coaching position in Rochester before the 2007 season. Tilley and his family live just a few hours away near Toronto and Tilley had run a large youth club in Guelph, Ontario.
At his first training session as coach, he had a mere dozen players, and three of them were goalies.
"There were players here that sort of wanted to leave and we had to convince them to stay and convince others to come in," said Tilley, who had former English Premier League midfielder Steve Guppy, 39, on board as his player/assistant. "We had to get people to buy back into the club."
The short training camp led to a 0-4-3 start that included just two goals. But Tilley kept preaching patience and a 5-0-2 run at midseason thrust Rochester into the middle of the pack and a four-match win streak sealed the Rhinos' 13th straight playoff berth. They're trying to win their first USL title since 2001.
Here's a look at the two semifinal series, which will be played over two legs on Friday and Sunday:
No. 1 Puerto Rico (15-6-9) vs. No. 4 Rochester (12-11-9)
The Islanders have gone 2-0-1 against the Rhinos, including a 4-0 rout on Aug. 8 in Bayamon, and a 2-0 victory as visitors on Sept. 12 to stop Rochester's four-match win streak. But fatigue has to be a concern for coach Colin Clarke's side.
Puerto Rico plays Municipal in Guatemala City on Wednesday night in the final game of the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, then must travel to upstate New York for Game 1 on Friday at 7:35 p.m. After another long flight on Saturday, Game 2 is Sunday at 6 p.m. in Puerto Rico.
"If anything, I think they'll be tired in the third game in five days [Sunday]," Tilley said.
The Islanders haven't lost since Aug. 1, and their 6-0-6 run has impressed Tilley, a USL Coach of the Year candidate with Clarke.
"In this league you need players that are willing to run and I'm not just saying run for the sake of running but run with a purpose," he said. "That's why I believe Puerto Rico is so good."
No. 2 Vancouver (15-8-8) vs. No. 3 Montreal (13-13-6)
In its first-round matchup with No. 6 Seattle, the Impact needed to rally from down a goal after the first leg and then again in the final 30 minutes to survive. They'll also be without defender Adam Braz for the opener on Friday at 8 p.m. in Montreal after he received a red card against the Sounders. Game 2 is Sunday at 6:30 p.m. in Vancouver.
Like Puerto Rico, weary legs could be an issue. Montreal played three matches last week, including one in the Champions League, and plays Olimpia on Wednesday in Honduras.
Vancouver won twice by a 1-0 score during the regular season and the teams also tied 0-0, so expect this to be tight with plenty of intensity. Three Montreal players -- Joey Gjertsen, David Testo and Tony Donatelli -- were the heart of Vancouver's midfield on its 2006 championship team, and Whitecaps forward Charles Gbeke was the Impact's leading scorer a year ago before being traded for Donatelli at midseason.
Gbeke had three goals and two assists in 14 matches with Vancouver, which is led in scoring by another former Montreal forward, Eduardo Sebrango (13 goals).
The Caps built leads of 2-0 (after Game 1) and 5-1 with 35 minutes left in their first-round series against No. 7 Minnesota, but had to hang on to win 5-4 on aggregate.
"You go 2-nil up and I think some teams are frightened with the lead," Lenarduzzi said. "You need to know how to play with the lead and having some veterans who have been there and know how to cope with it is key."
Jeff DiVeronica covers soccer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. He also writes a blog, Devo's Direct Kicks.