Too early to panic, but Impact’s start is cause for concern

It’s too early to hit a panic button.

After all, the Montreal Impact has been a traditionally slow starter. Every season, the club follows this script: Struggle early, find the stride in eary summer, and be a juggernaut by playoff time.

But, through three NASL games and one Nutrilite Canadian Championship match, there is plenty of cause for concern. And that runs deeper than the fact the club has scored one goal in four games this season (one draw, three losses), going into Sunday’s match in Edmonton.

That concern is extended to what’s happening at Stade Saputo. Or, more accurately, what’s not happening at Stade Saputo.

Through two home dates, there have been a concerning number of unused blue seats.

Now, because the Montreal Canadiens were in the NHL playoffs against the hated Boston Bruins, and Games 5 and 7 of that series directly conflicted with Impact matches, we can’t use words “panic” or “troubling” to describe attendances for soccer in Montreal this year. “Concern” is the right word.

But, now that the Habs are on the golf course, we need to see interest pick up in a team that moves to MLS next season.

The Impact players pose for a team photo ahead of the NCC match against Vancouver on Wednesday, in front of a smattering of fans.

The Impact had a poor showing for the home opener; but it did have to go against the Habs, who went to overtime against Boston on that day. Yes, the Impact played in the afternoon and the Habs played at night but, let’s face it — on a day like that, Montreal is hockey, hockey, hockey. The announced Stade Saputo attendance of 12,060 — a number that’s far greater than the number of bums that were in the seats — is likely a sign that a lot of season-ticket holders were no-shows for the game. People paid for the seats, but decided not to use the tickets. And, the weather on April 23 was anything but spring-like.

From the game report from The 11’s Mike Wyman: “Near-freezing temperatures and winds that regularly gusted beyond 30km/h combined to make for an afternoon during which only the 36 media folk on the press gallery and the Ultras in section 114 — their drums banging, flags flying and vocal cords fraying — seemed to be immune.”

Again, bleeding fans to the Habs when FC Tampa Bay is the opposition at Stade Saputo — that’s life.

But, the game against the Whitecaps was more troubling. Yes, the Habs were in Game 7 against the Bruins at the same time, but the estimated soccer crowd of only 3,500 is shockingly low. Why? Because Vancouver is Montreal’s most hated rival when it comes to soccer. And, it’s the only time the Whitecaps will visit Montreal all season long.

Is it concerning that only 3,500 members of the Impact’s fan base would choose watching soccer over the NHL? Next season, what if a Whitecaps-Impact MLS match-up runs into a Habs game on the schedule?

The problem is that, despite drawing over 55,000 for a CONCACAF Champions League game in 2009, despite being less than a year away from its MLS debut, the Impact don’t have the visibility in Montreal that TFC does in Toronto or the Whitecaps do in Vancouver. The Canucks are doing just fine in the playoffs, and the Whitecaps aren’t being ignored in the sports scene. The Whitecaps are a mainstream sports enterprise, not a niche team.

Toronto sports fans have a myriad of choices, yet Toronto FC does not get ignored. Yes, there have been attendance drop-offs this season. Four years worth of losing, rising prices and, frankly, a boring approach to soccer has transformed former season-ticket holders into cynics. But, the team has a strong niche. The fact that it receives so much criticism from the mainstream media is a sign of how the club is seen; it’s a big boy that can take the punishment.

I couldn’t imagine the Whitecaps or Toronto drawing just 3,500 for a game that counted in the standings in either MLS or NCC. Even with the Leafs and Canucks.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.