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'I really found a family in this team:' Tough season cements bond for Montreal Impact

The pain of watching a season-ending goal careen into his net hasn't yet dulled for Montreal Impact goalkeeper Clement Diop. 

It's been three days since the New England Revolution ended the Impact's Major League Soccer season with a last-minute strike that left the 27-year-old Frenchman lying on his goal line, hands over his head, staring at the sky.

“I’m not over that game yet," Diop said on a video call Tuesday. "It’s still very fresh. When you lose a playoff game, it hurts. It hurts.” 

The painful end punctuated a difficult season for the Impact.

The club played just four games in Montreal, spending most of the year on the road. First there was the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, then an all-Canadian series in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Finally, in mid-September, border restrictions forced the Impact — and the other Canadian clubs — to set up temporary homes in the U.S., with the Montreal relocating to Harrison, N.J.

Injuries swept through the squad as training time evaporated with the league's pandemic-condensed schedule, and Montreal's bench was left even shorter in mid-October when midfielder Saphir Taider was transferred to a Saudi Arabian club. 

Several players, including Diop, faced challenges away from the field, too. The 'keeper briefly returned to France in mid-October for personal reasons.

Montreal finished the MLS regular season with a 8-13-2 record, good for ninth place in the East. The club made the playoffs for the first time since 2016, but lost to New England in the play-in round. 

Through all of the adversity, the team grew together, Diop said. 

“I really found a family in this team because we were 24-7 with each other, with the staff," he said. "What I will remember is that we stick together no matter what. We showed character when we needed to, we fought. And this is something you can’t take away from this team.”

This season marked Thierry Henry's first as head coach for the Impact, and working with the decorated French striker was a highlight for midfielder Amar Sejdic. 

“He’s helped me tremendously," the 23-year-old American said. "Of course, we all know what he’s accomplished as a player. But it’s a privilege to be with him during the early stages of his managerial career because you just kind of realize just how much IQ he has for the game."

Even when Henry is speaking to other players about specific points in their play, Sejdic tries to soak up the coach's knowledge. 

“For me, I’m not the most athletic player but I do consider myself a very high IQ player. And that’s basically what football is," he said. "So I’ve just been trying to learn as much as I can from the coaching staff this year and apply it to my personal skill set.”

Selected 34th overall in the 2019 SuperDraft, Sejdic saw just 68 minutes of MLS action last year. He came into 2020 determined to carve out a role for himself on the team. 

Henry has praised Sejdic's work in training, and relied on the young midfielder down the stretch. 

He made 14 appearances in the MLS regular season, including seven starts, and scored two goals. 

“I learned a lot about persistence, and the value of persistence and consistency, and how that doesn’t go unnoticed," Sejdic said of his personal growth. “I think this year has been very challenging but it’s also been a very good learning experience for me.

While the Impact's MLS season is over, the team still has at least one game to play in the CONCACAF Champions League. The tournament was paused in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Montreal beat Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa to advance to the quarterfinals, where they lost 2-1 to CD Olimpia of Honduras. The second leg of the quarterfinal round will be played in Orlando on Dec. 15. 

Because the Impact have returned to Canada, however, the players are under 14-day quarantine and cannot train. 

"It just kind of sets everything back," Sejdic said.

The former University of Maryland Terrapin spent the first few days back allowing his body to recover before resuming at home workouts, but said spending so much time at home has been tough. 

“I’ve been playing a lot of Xbox," Sejdic said. "That’s pretty much it, to be honest. It’s been long days, I’ve got to say.”

The other Champions League teams are training, and Diop hopes a solution can be found to allow the Impact to get back on the field soon. 

“It’s not an ideal situation, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020. 

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press