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CF Montreal enters MLS season with some new faces, and a new play style

CF Montreal is heading into the Major League Soccer season with plenty of intrigue.

With new faces on the team sheet and a new head coach working to implement an exciting play style, Laurent Courtois’s squad hopes to give fans more to cheer about after Montreal missed the playoffs in an offensively challenged past season under Hernan Losada.

Montreal opens the campaign on the road Saturday against Orlando City SC. The club won’t play at home until April 13 against FC Cincinnati, its seventh game of the season.

"I think it's the desire to give it our all, especially,” goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois said of what he thinks will be Montreal’s biggest strength this season. “With all the new arrivals, it creates a new desire. There are a lot of positives and the players are excited."

Executives Olivier Renard and Gabriel Gervais outlined the style of play as a key reason for Losada’s firing after Montreal struggled to just 36 goals in 34 MLS games last year.

With Courtois’s attacking and possession-oriented tactics, which include getting the goalkeeper involved in building up play and creating a partnership between attackers in the final third, that’s bound to change.

The club also bolstered its offence by signing Uruguayan striker Matias Coccaro, former MLS MVP and golden boot winner Josef Martinez, and Bulgarian-Canadian attacking midfield Dominic Iankov.

"It's gonna be great for Montreal," said forward Mahala Opoku. "Because we'll be scoring more goals, winning more games and fans are happy."

From his view of the field as a ‘keeper, Sirois says he already sees a revitalized side up front.

"The connection with the front three that we have is very important, very crucial,” Sirois said. “And we see it more and more in training and even in games, the friendship and the partnership up there is much better."

Upon hiring Courtois, Gervais outlined ambitious goals of making the MLS playoffs and contending, winning the Canadian Championship and returning to the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

Although there’s excitement with Montreal’s moves, only two of 17 experts on MLSSoccer.com predict Montreal will make the top nine of a competitive Eastern Conference.

It may take some time for the team to realize its full potential as it adapts to Courtois’s system.

Courtois arrived in Montreal after two seasons of coaching Columbus Crew 2 in the developmental MLS Next Pro league. Last season, he worked under Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy, who led Montreal to its best MLS season in 2022 before leaving for Columbus.

Under Courtois, Montreal players say they’re having to forget some of the things they absorbed last year.

"We are trying to adapt and create new habits,” winger Ariel Lassiter said. “We have to wipe away things that we're doing completely differently compared to the last season.

“At this point in time, each game is a practice run for us and what we're trying to do. Saturday will be our first true test."

While working out the kinks, Montreal went 0-3-1 during pre-season play. Not concerned with the results, Courtois focused on his team acquiring the mentality and style of play he seeks.

Now that the score will show up in the standings, Courtois says they’ll try to find a balance between making progress and playing to win.

"I would never sacrifice everything for the result just in order to get one point, so we have to be ourselves,” Courtois said. “But now we also want to become competitors and we're going to try to find the best way to navigate between those two."

TOUGH FIRST TEST

The first “true test,” as Lassiter put it, is a tough one. Orlando finished second in the East with 63 points last season before reaching the semifinals, and is in good form after beating Canadian Premier League side Cavalry 3-0 in Champions Cup play Wednesday.

The club also added Colombian international Luis Muriel, who scored 185 goals in Serie A, Italy’s top division.

"We're going to try little by little to get closer to the style of play we want, keeping in mind that we've just started working together so this won't be the final version,” Courtois said. “We have to also keep in mind that we're facing a very good team, for me they were the favourites along with Crew last season."

KEY ADDITIONS — Striker Matias Coccaro, former MLS MVP Josef Martinez, attacking midfielder Dominic Iankov, left wingback Raheem Edwards and right wingback Ruan.

KEY SUBTRACTIONS — Striker Romell Quioto (Saudi Arabia), wingback Aaron Herrera (D.C. United) and right back Zachary Brault-Guillard (free agent).

MARK YOUR CALENDAR — Montreal plays superstar Lionel Messi and Inter Miami on March 10 on the road before hosting them at Stade Saputo on May 11. The first game against Toronto FC is on May 18 at BMO Field. The Vancouver Whitecaps come to town July 6.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press