USL's Impact down Santos in first leg
MONTREAL -- The pitcher's mound is long gone, now part of a soccer field.
Five years after the Montreal Expos left town, Olympic Stadium filled up Wednesday night, a big change for the mostly idle and mostly problematic home of the 1976 Summer Olympics.
A near-capacity crowd of 55,571 took in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal game, a 2-0 win for the Montreal Impact of the United Soccer League over Mexican club Santos Laguna.
"Montreal is a very, very good city for events," Impact vice president Richard Legendre said. "It shows that Montreal is open to different products as long as the product is good. When the right product is offered it is a population that supports many different things."
Eduardo Sebrango scored twice for the Impact, which will host a semifinal at Olympic Stadium in late March if they win the two-game, total-goals series. The second leg is March 5 in Torreon, Mexico.
Many fans were still battling the unusually high motor and foot traffic in the neighborhood and had yet to make it to their seats in the cavernous stadium when Sebrango scored on a give-and-go with Roberto Brown for a 1-0 lead 5 minutes in.
The team's fans sprang from the now-filled seats in the 77th minute when Sebrango scored his second of the game after he beat Mexican national team goalie Oswaldo Sanchez to a ball headed forward by Brown off a free kick by Impact captain Nevio Pizzolitto.
The crowd gave the Impact an ovation through the final minutes of injury time after they had already cheered themselves when the official attendance was announced and shown on the scoreboard in the 67th minute.
Another quarterfinal in Houston on Tuesday night drew just more than 10,000 fans for a 1-1 tie between the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer and Atlante FC of Mexico.
"It's already a great success for us, but of course what happens on the field is crucial for us," said Legendre, a former Davis Cup tennis player who later served as director of the Canadian Open and Tennis Canada.
Following a stint in politics, including a failed bid for the leadership of the separatist Parti Quebecois, Legendre joined the not-for-profit Impact in 2007 and oversaw construction of the team's outdoor stadium. The 13,000-seat Saputo Stadium was built in the shadow of Olympic Stadium in time for the 2008 season.
The Impact beat out the Vancouver Whitecaps -- who went on to win the USL First Division title -- and Toronto FC of MLS to claim the Canadian berth in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament.
In qualifying for the quarterfinals, the team had to decide where to play a winter home game. With its intimate new facility buried under snow, alternatives included the possibility of playing in Toronto, the city's traditional sports rival.
"For us, it would have been totally ridiculous," Legendre said. "It wasn't really an option."
While Olympic Stadium was an obvious solution, a big obstacle stood in the way. The domed stadium had not hosted an event during the winter since its new roof tore because of snow accumulation shortly after it was installed in 1999.
Despite an annual ban on any events from December through March, provincial and municipal authorities approved the game provided there was no accumulation of snow or ice on the roof or the cables to the stadium's inclined tower. Final approval came Tuesday afternoon.
"Very early, we felt the will to find a solution," Legendre said.
The Expos moved to Olympic Stadium in 1977. They consistently drew crowds under 10,000 during their final years in Montreal before Major League Baseball moved them to Washington at the end of the 2004 season.
The Grey Cup filled the stadium in November. The Canadian Football League title game was contested before a near-capacity crowd of 66,308, with the Calgary Stampeders defeating the Montreal Alouettes. The Alouettes play during the regular season at 20,000-seat Molson Stadium.
Olympic Stadium hosted nine games during the 2007 FIFA under-20 World Cup in Canada.
"The Expos did very well for many years and sold a lot of tickets for many years," Legendre said. "Personally, I've always believed Olympic Stadium was a great facility. It depends what you put in it. When there are 20,000 or 25,000 people, it's not a great stadium."