After crashing out of the MLS Cup Playoffs to defending champions NYCFC at the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals stage, CF Montreal find themselves at a crossroads.
The gradual improvement under Wilfried Nancy - who took over in March 2021 following the departure of Thierry Henry after almost five years as an assistant coach - is there for all to see.
Last season, CFMTL missed out on the MLS Cup Playoffs by just two points after a Decision Day loss to Orlando City, but still tasted success by winning the Canadian Championship for the fifth time.
This year, though they couldn't retain their cup title, they took a huge leap by finishing second in the Eastern Conference, making the Playoffs for just the second time in the last six seasons. What's more, Montreal beat Mexican giants Santos Laguna to reach the quarter-finals of the Concacaf Champions League.
However, key attacking piece Djordje Mihailovic - who scored Montreal's only goal in Sunday's 3-1 defeat to NYCFC - has already inked a move to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. Meanwhile, Victor Wanyama will not sign a new contract, and serious interest continues to be shown from Europe in talented young midfielder Ismael Kone.
And that's just the issues that'll need solving in midfield. Further questions remain over the future of veteran striker Kei Kamara, while Nancy might well want to strengthen in defense to avoid another crash in the Playoffs next time around.
Regardless of what happens, Nancy feels ready for the challenge and wants to continue a third year of incremental growth.
“We’ll see the future,” the French head coach said after Sunday's defeat. “At the end of the day, I don’t know who’s going to come back or not but the team will stay here and the objective is to restart again. We’re going to restart with what we’ve done before in a good way and this is what happened this year.
“Last year, the first year, it was really good, yes. We didn’t make the playoffs but because of this first year, we were able to do a good year. So hopefully next year is going to be the same also.”
One key player whose heart appears to remain in Montreal is Canada international wing-back Alistair Johnston, who played in 33 of the club's 34 regular-season games in 2022 after joining from Nashville SC.
Johnston, 24, is already looking ahead to 2023 and hoping Montreal can retain the core of the roster that delivered so much success this year.
“Change is inevitable, it’s what happens in this sport. You win, you lose, things happen. So we’ll see. It’ll be an interesting off-season,” he said.
“I hope that we can keep a lot of core players and I think we have complete trust in this management staff to bring replacements that are needed and find that next diamond in the rough, the next Koné. Our academy is producing players. We watch them – they come up and train with us, there’s some unbelievable players coming through. Montréal's in a good place.”
The disappointment in crashing out of the Playoffs is bitter, as is ending the campaign without a trophy. Right now, Johnston is struggling to separate the deflation from feelings of optimism and improvement.
“We have to look at it as a building block,” Johnston said. “At the same time, we truly felt we had the group here in place to lift hardware, lift something at the end of the year. So it is a real bummer to go out this way.”
Nancy, however, sees the bigger picture. The 45-year-old is proud of what he's achieved at the club so far and isn't done yet.
“The point is when I took the team, is to get players we believe in and try to improve the players and to be clear about what we want to do,” he said. “And for me, this is a success. For me also, all the players individually, they grew.”
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