As Minnesota United gears up to join MLS in 2017, the Loons might look to the Montréal Impact to see how to transfer from the lower divisions to MLS. After all, the Impact were the last club to move from NASL to MLS, and the second-to-last club to exist prior to MLS entry. So how have the Impact adapted from lower league ball to the superstar-baiting rules of MLS? Turns out, that for a club that’s often ignored, the Impact have made some huge moves in the designated player market.
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.
Introduction to Series and Updating Chart of Profiled Clubs
DC United: C
FC Dallas: C+
Columbus Crew: B
Sporting KC: B-
New York Red Bulls: B-
San Jose Earthquakes: C
New England Revolution: C+
Los Angeles Galaxy: B+
Chicago Fire: C-
Colorado Rapids: B-
Real Salt Lake: B
Chivas USA: B-
Houston Dynamo: D
Toronto FC: B+
Seattle Sounders: B
Philadelphia Union: C-
Portland Timbers: B
Impact de Montréal (founded 1992, joined MLS 2012)
Age When Signed: 35
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,166,667
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.661
A striker’s striker who spend at least 90% of every game offside, Marco Di Vaio came up through the Italian leagues, leading Salernitana to promotion in 1998, then excelling with Parma in Serie A. His goal scoring caught the eye (inevitably) of Juventus, who paid €14 million for his services in 2003. Di Vaio could never nail down his spot with La Vecchia Signora, however, and after a couple of seasons he began a tour of Mediterranean Europe with stops in Valencia, Monaco, and then Genoa. However, it was inland with Bologna, his tenth team, that Di Viao finally found a real home. In 143 appearances, Di Vaio scored 65 goals in his later years.
Montréal owner Joey Saputo comes from an Italian-Quebecois family, and his ties back to his native land have proved fruitful for the Impact over the years. The signing of Di Vaio is the most obvious example of the Italian influence on the club. Despite his declining years, Di Vaio was coming off the best years of his career, and he proved in Montréal that he still had something left. After a respectable half-season in 2012, Di Vaio terrorized defenses in 2013, scoring 20 goals for the Impact and leading them to the Canadian Championship and their first ever MLS playoff berth. Unfortunately, their run ended with an embarrassing fracas that saw Di Vaio ejected for grabbing the throat of Corey Ashe. Di Vaio was subsequently suspended, and his production in 2014 fell off, with only 9 goals, as the Impact failed to make the playoffs. Di Vaio retired following that season.
Di Vaio has apparently rejoined Bologna as a manager. Interestingly, Bologna are now owned by… Joey Saputo.
Di Vaio was among the league’s most lethal strikers for one year, and a middling striker for the other year and a half. His output has to be credited as one of the key reasons Montréal snuck into the playoffs in 2013, but his temper tantrum in the playoffs cast a pall over his record that year, and hurt the Impact in 2014. For over a million dollars, the Impact targeted an aging goal scorer, and that’s precisely what they got.
Age When Signed: 26
Average Base Salary per Season: $250,008
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.000
A veteran of the Argentine leagues, Bernardello compiled a workman-like résumé with Newell’s Old Boys (best known as the first youth club of Lionel Messi), Almería, and Colón. In over 200 appearances, he scored six goals as a defensive central midfielder.
In 2013, the Impact saw an opportunity to add Bernardello for a low designated player fee. Bernardello played nine games in his first season in Montréal, and contributed to the 2013 Impact playoff team. However in the opening round match against Houston, Bernardello conceded a penalty that would give the Dyanmo a 2-0 lead. The Argentine would only play ten matches in his second season with the Impact, before departing to Cruz Azul in Liga MX without having scored or assisted a goal in MLS.
Bernardello featured just eight times in Mexico before returning to Argentina for a second spell at Newell’s Old Boys and a brief period at Alavés. But earlier this year, he made the trip right back up to Montréal and is back on the Impact, albeit no longer for DP money. He’s made ten appearances with the Impact this year, and even scored!
In the announcement of Bernardello’s signing, Impact team president Nick De Santis was not exactly effusive in his praise for the Argentine, noting in the announcement that among his signing’s strongest qualities was that he had “consistently played between 25 and 30 games a season over his career.” If that’s the standard by which this acquisition ought to be judged, then it was certainly a failure; he played just 19 games in two years. But it’s hard to take too dim a view of this acquisition. Bernardello came, he saw, he played fairly well, and he didn’t cost much at all. It wasn’t exactly a masterstroke by the Impact, but it was a low risk, moderate reward type of deal, and even today it’s paying some small dividends, as the player is back with the club.
Age When Signed: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $400,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.712
A skillful Argentine #10, Piatti spent much of his career in his native country, playing for Chacarita Juniors, Gimnasia LP, Independiente, and San Lorenzo. Mixed in, Piatti had a short stint in Ligue 1 with Saint-Étienne and a few years in Serie A with a very bad Lecce club (who are now in Serie C). Piatti found playing time wherever he went, but never seemed to stick with one club for more than a couple seasons, and never scored double digit goals in a year.
Piatti’s services were acquired by Montréal in July of 2014, but it was agreed that he would stay with San Lorenzo until the end of their Copa Libertadores campaign to make the move official. Remarkably, San Lorenzo proceeded to make a miracle run to the final, and only after the first game of the two-legged finale was Piatti obliged to move. Once he did, however, it became clear that he was well worth the wait. He scored four goals in six games of the 2014 season, then nine goals with eight assists in 2015. This most recent year, however has been his best yet. As of this writing, Piatti has fourteen goals and five assists in 29 games. He is the centerpiece of the Impact attack, and among the league’s best attacking players.
Last week, Jeff wrote about Piatti’s compatriot, Portland’s Diego Valeri. But in 2015 and 2016, both of Piatti’s complete seasons in the league, he’s been slightly more productive than his counterpart, for a worse team, and for $100,000 less! If there’s a true star player in MLS who does not get nearly enough credit, it’s this man. But Montréal fans know what a wizard this man is, and they might have to pay him more money in the future to keep him around. Right now, he’s an absolute steal.
Age When Signed: 37
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,666,668
Goals+Assists per 90: 1.188
Is this section even necessary? You know all about him already: born in Côte d’Ivoire, Didier Drogba grew up in France, and rapidly made his way up the French footballing ladder. His goal scoring and 03-04 Player of the Year award in Ligue 1 drew the attentions of Chelsea FC, a middling London club
founded in 2004 whose ambitions had gotten a jolt after being purchased by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. With Drogba leading the line, Chelsea went on to become a European superclub. He won the Premier League three times with Chelsea, and scored the late equalizer and winning penalty kick in the 2012 Champions League final. After that triumph, he left Chelsea to rake in the cash in China, then returned to Europe with Galatasaray, and again returned to Chelsea in a back-up/club talisman role, where he won the Premier League a fourth time. Meanwhile in this time, Drogba led Côte d’Ivoire to their first three World Cups and literally brought peace to his war-torn nation. To say he’s something of a legend would be a monumental understatement. He is perhaps second only to David Beckham in the ranks of global celebrities to play in MLS.
After his second stint with Chelsea, Drogba eschewed retirement in favor of a contract with Montréal. The Impact have not always abused their francophone city to recruit top French-speaking talent, but Drogba’s arrival in a relatively small MLS market was certainly down to that unique Quebecois factor. Despite his stardom, at the age of 37, and following a less-than-impactful year return to the Premier League, there were real questions as to whether Drogba would actually prove a useful MLS player and more than just a sideshow.
Those questions were answered almost immediately, when the Ivorian scored a hat trick in his first league start. In just fourteen matches in 2015, Drogba scored twelve goals, single-handedly dragging the Impact to an unlikely playoff spot and first round win. Despite loud and persistent rumors that he would retire and become a coach for Chelsea, Drogba eventually returned to Montréal for the 2016 season and just kept on scoring, with ten goals in twenty-one appearances as of this report. If there’s ever been a player who has made MLS look easy and reminded us of the gulf in quality that still exists between our league and the best of Europe, it’s been Drogba.
Is there a grade above A+? Of every designated player in league history, only Sebastian Giovinco has a better ratio of goals and assists per 90 minutes (over a reasonable sample size, apologies to Nicolas Lodeiro), and only those two players have a ratio over 1. It’s simply sensational what Drogba has managed to achieve, even as he nears 40 years old. His arrival in Montréal helped re-energize this club, and his effort in dragging the Impact to the playoffs last year was breathtaking. He’s been less effective by his own standards in 2016, but still excellent by everyone else’s. He could play next year, if he still wants to. Why not? Legend.
Age When Signed: 21
Average Base Salary per Season: $380,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.373
A talented and pacey Argentine, Ontivero was picked up by Galatasaray at just 19. But after failing to make it immediately in Turkey, the young winger has been loaned out repeatedly since, including to clubs in Hungary and Slovenia, and with little playing time to show for it.
In 2016, Galatasaray tried a different tack, sending Ontivero on loan to Montréal. The Impact have responded by at last giving him the playing time that he needs. Just 22, he’s no longer a prospect for European clubs, but he’s young for MLS. In 20 appearances this season, twelve of which were starts, Ontivero has scored twice and assisted twice.
Ontivero is young, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the careless way in which his career has been managed so far. The Impact might do well to secure Ontivero’s services permanently. That being said, his production to date has not matched his designated player salary. In MLS’ recent 24 under 24, he made the shortlist, but not the final list. That’s not really good enough for someone being paid so much.
Average Signing Age: 29.6
Average Base Salary: $732,084
Average Grade: B-
Montréal’s designated player record is a funny one. The Impact have spent big on international stars, like Drogba and Di Vaio, and otherwise they’ve turned to budget options from Argentina. It’s been a successful strategy so far, you’ve got to say. Piatti and Drogba have been thrilling additions to the league, and Di Vaio was always interesting. Their less dynamic DPs have hardly been flops, and have certainly been cheap. Montréal haven’t taken advantage of the designated player rule quite like some teams, but they’ve made the most of their ventures.
Next week: Vancouver Whitecaps