CF Montréal season 2023–24

CF Montréal fans and followers are bracing for big changes and bold moves

We spoke with a sports journalist, a soccer podcaster and CFM’s director of soccer culture about how lineup and coaching shifts have altered the face of the team this season.

Calling this a transitional year for CF Montréal is quite the understatement — and that’s not even including the logo change. The MLS franchise has made headlines in recent months for selling three of its brightest young stars from last season to European clubs: Alistair Johnston (Celtic in the Scottish Premiership), Ismaël Koné (Watford in the English Championship) and midfield stalwart Djordje Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie).

Winger Joaquin Torres was traded to the Philadelphia Union, and multiple other players (e.g. Zorhan Bassong, Bjorn Johnsen, Sebastian Breza, Gabriele Corbo) are also departing the club. Centre-backs Kamal Miller and Joel Waterman — both of whom went to Qatar with the Canadian national men’s team for the World Cup this past December — are reportedly attracting European interest. Striker Kei Kamara also requested a trade in January, though he remains with the club as of this writing.

As if all this weren’t enough, former player Sandro Grande was hired as CF Montréal’s reserve team head coach, only to have his offer quickly rescinded after Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon tweeted about Grande’s controversial 2012 tweets about former premier Pauline Marois (Grande apologized to Marois in writing following his dismissal, and his family has reportedly received threats over his comments).

Although CF Montréal have recouped quite the windfall for Mihailovic, Johnston and Koné combined (at least €17.5-million, or more than $25-million CAD), the most heartbreaking and consequential departure may be former head coach Wilfried Nancy, who left to manage the Columbus Crew. His exit comes after a bust-up with owner Joey Saputo following a 2–1 loss in July against Sporting Kansas City. Saputo was enraged following the defeat and wanted to speak to the players, but Nancy refused to let him into the dressing room, leading to a shouting match between the two. Replacing Nancy is Hernan Losada, a 40-year-old Argentine known for his strict, fitness-heavy management style, and for previously spending 15 months (and only 41 matches) managing D.C. United after joining the MLS from Belgian club Beerschot.

“It seemed pretty clear that Wilfried Nancy had turned the page on CF Montréal, and that’s something the club had to deal with,” says journalist Tristan D’Amours. “I don’t think that Joey Saputo helped his case, but then again, the Columbus Crew are an ambitious team that zeroed in on Nancy to help link up their academy to their first team, while trying to win trophies. It’s a step forward for Nancy. However, it wasn’t a good look for Montreal.”

So how will things go down for CF Montréal when their new season kicks off Feb. 25 away at Inter Miami? And why should fans still look forward to the upcoming season, despite the gusty winds of change within the club? First, it’s worth remembering there’s no guarantee the 2023 campaign wouldn’t have been a transitional one even without this much upheaval.

“Even if Wilfried Nancy stayed with his whole staff, it would have been a bit of a reset with all the changes,” says Sofiane Benzaza, content creator for KAN Football Club, a French-language podcast dedicated to soccer in Quebec. “With Hernan Losada, it’s a bigger change than we maybe expected back in September or October.

“It seems like the philosophy of this coach aligns with the philosophy of the club, to say, ‘We’re going to play this style: offensive, pressing etc.’ They seem to have players to do that, but they’re missing a few players to be able to be as competitive as last year. You’ll have to wait until April to see how this team’s doing.”

For Benzaza, the club’s biggest need remains a striker (as well as another midfielder), even if Kamara sticks around. Ideally, that striker’s profile would be an expensive fox in the box between the ages of 24 and 30, though he realizes CF Montréal takes a lower-budget approach to building their squad. But there’s always room for internal surprises, particularly within the youth setup.

“Last year, I didn’t see Ismaël Koné coming at all,” he admits. “I was kind of worried (before last season). You had Torres, (Ahmed) Hamdi and Mihailovic, who was going to get better, but the midfield was a bit light. Then Koné came over and cemented himself with (Victor) Wanyama and (Samuel) Piette.”

The squad’s primary architect is Olivier Renard, CF Montréal’s vice president and chief sporting officer (previously sporting director). A goalkeeper in his playing days who has since gained valuable experience in directorial, scouting and consulting roles at Standard Liège and Royal Antwerp in Belgium, Renard has made an array of shrewd transactions since his arrival in Montreal in September 2019.

Working alongside club president/CEO Gabriel Gervais and assistant sporting director Vasili Cremanzidis, Renard’s perceived “buy low, sell high” approach has helped CF Montréal finish second in the Eastern Conference last season, a new record for the club. However, rumours out of Turkey emerged in January linking CF Montréal to striker Edin Dzeko. Although the lynchpin of the attack remains the Honduran striker/winger Romell Quioto, confidence levels by fans and media in Renard’s philosophy should nonetheless remain high, even without any big names incoming.

“He has a strategy and a vision, and there are no question marks. There are no weird dealings. It’s very clear,” says Benzaza. “The previous sporting directors, Adam Braz and Nick DeSantis, knew their football, but sometimes the strategy of the club as a whole wasn’t necessarily cohesive in a league that has accelerated.

“Clubs (in MLS now) have a huge staff of scouts and technical directors. You can look at Toronto FC’s technical staff — it’s humongous. It looks like a Premier League club’s staff for scouting. This has caught up to them, and now they have a clear vision.”

Despite the money earned from selling Mihailovic, Johnston and Koné, the club has yet to truly reinvest that money into players who can elevate them (a rumoured signing of American midfielder Alan Soñora didn’t materialize). This may be partly due to major financial losses over the past few years, including a loss of $12-million from last season despite gaining $30-million in revenue. CF Montréal is also the second-least valuable franchise in MLS according to Forbes, with only the Colorado Rapids trailing them. (Recent reports, however, suggest CF Montréal’s financial fortunes could soon change.)

If anything, fans can probably expect this team’s squad construction to remind them of the 2002 “moneyball” Oakland Athletics in Major League Baseball. “This is not a team that will be a big spender within MLS,” says D’Amours. “This might be the Oakland Athletics of MLS, where they get a lot of lesser-known players who end up being stars somewhere else, or who end up being stars within the team and then move on. The positive aspect of that is you might be in the black at some point, and make a lot of money off of them. But you’re not necessarily going to see a well-known designated player (come in).”

CF Montréal have already acquired new players from within MLS, adding a centre-back from Atlanta United in George Campbell as well as a right-back in Aaron Herrera from Real Salt Lake to replace Johnston. The club inked Toronto-born midfielder Ilias Iliadis from Panathinaikos in Greece in mid-January before later signing Montreal native Jules-Anthony Vilsaint — a 20-year-old who’d most recently been in Royal Antwerp’s youth system.

Some younger players could also fill a void internally: Rida Zouhir, Mathieu Choinière, Sean Rea, Nathan-Dylan Saliba and goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois are all local boys (in addition to Vilsaint) with considerable upside, while Matko Miljevic (who will unfortunately be sidelined for two to three months with a left meniscus tear), Chinonso Offor and Sunusi Ibrahim are foreign players who could fit that same bill — each under the age of 23. Another example is Róbert Orri Thorkelsson, a young centre-back who’s already gotten reps with the Icelandic senior national team, though he’s made only four appearances with CF Montréal to date.

“He hasn’t played a lot of minutes thus far with our club, but I think he’s ready to step up and play more this year,” says Patrick Leduc, CF Montreal’s director of soccer culture (and former Montreal Impact player from 2000–2010). “I’m not saying he’ll end up being a starter, but I think he’s got the potential to play a lot more. Other players in a similar profile will benefit from having the opportunities.”

If you ask D’Amours, Sean Rea in particular — a 20-year-old attacking midfielder from Laval who’s spent two seasons on loan at Valour FC in Winnipeg in the Canadian Premier League, where he was the league’s U21 Player of the Year in 2022 — is a candidate to take a big step forward this season. Rea has also made it public that he likely wouldn’t be returning to the CPL for the upcoming campaign. But it’s also worth being gentle with him, and not counting on him too much to be an immediate difference-maker.

“We’re going to have to be a bit patient, even though he’s stated his intentions,” D’Amours adds. “I hope that fans don’t expect him to be Ismaël Koné from the get-go. Ismaël Koné was an unknown before he scored his first goal in the (CONCACAF) Champions League, and then it lit a fire under everyone. Patience is probably going to be a virtue with Rea if we want him to succeed. He’s got an opportunity, and I like the gusto.”

Meanwhile, Hernan Losada’s hiring hasn’t been met without controversy. This isn’t simply because of the swift and sudden nature of Nancy’s departure, but also Losada’s reputation for emphasizing fitness (specifically players’ diets and weight) and putting his players through intense training sessions, as well as his underwhelming record at D.C. United. 

The Argentine also came under fire by former D.C. United goalkeeper Chris Seitz in a tweet thread last May for confronting him about a two-year-old photo he posted on Mother’s Day of his wife and kids having a picnic. Though Seitz was not in the photo himself, Losada criticized him for his “poor food choices,” leading to Seitz hitting “rock bottom” and experiencing depression, with his wife fearing that he’d developed an eating disorder and that he’d “lost his joy.” Losada has also been accused by another player, Julian Gressel, of handing out fines to players who were over his desired weight, among other things. It doesn’t help, either, that Losada is yet another pony in the club’s coaching carousel in MLS under Joey Saputo’s ownership — their ninth in less than 12 years.

But Losada, CF Montreal’s youngest-ever head coach who also happens to be a French-speaking polyglot, has vowed to correct his previous coaching mistakes, and his tactical approach lines up nicely with the style the club has played with since Renard arrived. Having a warm persona away from the pitch doesn’t hurt, either.

“I’ll use a word that might surprise you, but I think he’s been charming in all of his interviews,” says Leduc. “First of all, he’s able to speak multiple languages. I think that’s a touchy subject here in Montreal, but it’s something that is really well-received by our fanbase. He’s also been smiling in every interview. And obviously, any fanbase will like a coach who brings wins. If we can understand where he’s trying to go, what he’s trying to do with the team, I think it helps everybody be on the same page.”

The club has been holding training camp since Jan. 9, having first spent a month at the Big O — where they played a scrimmage as well as a friendly against the PLSQ All-Stars — before heading down south to continue camp in Fort Lauderdale, FL, to get used to playing on grass before facing Inter Miami. Leduc tells us the players had “heavy physical sessions” in Montreal before travelling to Florida, where they’ve had “a little bit of a Top Gun feel” to their camp by playing beach volleyball, as well as having team-bonding exercises.

Though there are plenty of takeaways, both positive and negative, from the months since the club’s heartbreaking early playoff exit to New York City FC in October, the 2023 season should be nothing if not intriguing. Many are already predicting a lower-table finish in the Eastern Conference this season. Benzaza, for one, definitely doesn’t see CF Montréal as a team that could finish top-three in the East again.

“Too many clubs have gotten better, and Losada is a question mark,” he adds. “I would say we’re a mid-table club — 10th to 13th in the (Eastern Conference) standings.”

The club will once again go into a season as a relative underdog in MLS. But once you tune out that noise, there are some definite silver linings worth focusing on. “I think we will have an ambitious team, a team that wants to take the game to their opponents. I expect a team that is willing to take the initiative, take some risks. That’s exciting,” says Leduc. 

“Also, you have to remember the defensive foundation has not changed much from last year. That’s always where you’re building from. Our core is pretty solid. We’ll try to get every player to contribute to the attack, and that’s where the focus might be early in the year. We’ll be eager to surprise again. I can understand how other clubs might underestimate us. I actually hope they will, because it gives you the challenge. If our players are hungry, and they’re up for it, then we have a better chance of success.”

Given all the uncertainty about how the coaching change and squad turnover will unfold, not to mention the opportunities that will surely be given to relatively unproven younger players, it’s understandable to be anxious about the impending campaign. But perhaps that’s part of the fun behind the dawn of a new season.

“The cool thing about question marks is that you see them slowly answered as you watch the players on the field,” D’Amours says. “It might be for the best, it might also be for the worst. But there is some intrigue in this CF Montréal squad, and we’re all going to find out about it together.” ■

For more on CF Montréal, please visit the team’s website.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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