New coach Hernan Losada ready to put his stamp on revamped CF Montreal

MONTREAL — When the full-time whistle was blown in CF Montreal’s final outing of the 2022 season, nobody could have foreseen how the team would look in 2023.

Some departures were to be expected. Djordje Mihailovic, Ismaël Koné, and Alistair Johnston were all moved to European clubs for a sizable profit, reaffirming what sporting director Olivier Renard had coined “Projet MTL.”

The club’s first priority was to showcase and develop the best young talent in Canadian soccer and become a destination for promising players from all over.

However, moods quickly soured when it was announced that head coach Wilfried Nancy was not only leaving the club, but joining Eastern Conference rival Columbus Crew. Nancy was a proven Major League Soccer coach, having led Montreal to second place in the East and just two points away from the Supporter’s Shield.

But Argentine Hernan Losada took over as his replacement. The 40-year-old is a former midfielder who had cut his teeth in the Belgian first division — much like Renard — both as a player then manager.

“Montreal is known for developing young players and this is not a new concept but has been happening for a few years now,” said Losada after his hiring. “That is the philosophy of the club and it’s something I’m very excited to be a part of.”

As Losada began settling in and worked his way through seven weeks of training camp — four in Montreal and another three in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., — he began to implement his tactical philosophy.

Under Nancy, Montreal was known for playing with three central defenders, two wingbacks, and a deep-lying playmaker, allowing them to dominate the ball and enforce their desired tempo both at home and on the road.

Losada has hinted at deploying a similar formation and looking for the same objectives, but has insisted that he is putting his own spin to it.

Following in the footsteps of traditional Argentine thinking, Losada will look to play more vertically and break through lines in a much more assertive manner. That is made possible by defenders Kamal Miller, Rudy Camacho, Joel Waterman and midfielder Victor Wanyama ranking among the best progressive passers in MLS.

“The way we want to attack and hurt other team will still come through the back three and the midfield in front of us,” said Miller. “Coach wants to play more vertically and take more risks.

"Last year, we kept the ball but didn’t really hurt the opponent sometimes so (Losada) is just trying to get the most out of us.”

Entrusting the development of an attack to the defensive line is an increasingly common mindset, as teams are taking advantage of technical, ball-playing central defenders who can break lines and suddenly increase the tempo. That will also be crucial due to the numerous questions swirling around the group’s offensive corps.

While the departures of Johnston and Koné have been replaced, Renard has not delved into the transfer market to bring in a replacement for Mihailovic. The attacking midfielder was the team’s top player in 2021 and was a front-runner for MLS MVP last season until he was forced to miss time due to an ankle injury.

Trusting instead in Montreal’s existing reservoir of young talent, it seemed as though Matko Miljevic would inherit the spot — and the accompanying pressure — having played as Mihailovic’s understudy last year. That project was forced to be put on hold, however, as a meniscus tear suffered during a pre-season friendly and resulting surgery leaves him out for at least two months.

Considering this injury, there are a number of young players who can now throw their hat into the ring. Sean Rea is one of Montreal’s most promising youngsters and was named Canadian Premier League Under-21 Player of the Year during his loan spell last season. He seems to be next in line, but one of Montreal’s strengths is now deep the squad is in midfield, giving Losada multiple options on how to navigate this situation.

“We aren’t obligated to play with a lone No. 10, there are a lot of variations that we have at our disposal and can use accordingly.” said Losada. “We also have six attackers in the squad which gives us the flexibility to adjust our lineup to either suit our opponent’s weakness or our strengths.”

The club will at least have some familiarity with their first opponent of the season; Inter Miami. The two teams played each other in a pre-season friendly last week with Montreal claiming a 2-1 victory.

The two clubs find themselves in similar positions with a lot of questions needing to be answered after a tumultuous off-season. Miami has brought in the services of former league MVP Josef Martinez following the retirement of Gonzalo Higuain and have reinforced a number of positions all over the field.

With that in mind, Montreal will be looking to continue last year’s strong form away from home that culminated in them breaking the record for the most away points in MLS history in the post-shootout era. With Stade Saputo still covered in snow, five of the team’s six first games will be on the road, testing their resolve and their new coach early in the season.

Kickoff on Saturday is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET at DRV PNK Stadium in Miami.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2023.

Elias Grigoriadis, The Canadian Press