MONTREAL — As residents of their city dig themselves out of an arctic winter blast, the Montreal Impact are escaping to warmer pastures.
The one catch is, they'll need to be fit.
"We're leaving at the right time," Impact midfielder Samuel Piette said before the MLS team boarded a plane bound for training camp in Florida on Monday. "After a big snowstorm like this in Montreal, if you can get out of here it's always good,”
Impact coach Remi Garde will watch 28 players at camp in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., after placing an emphasis on fitness during his first year last season. Some players prepared differently in the off-season to adjust.
"I ran a lot more," Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush said. "The first half last season, coming out of camp, I had a little bit of a calf and Achilles (pain) that I was carrying with me because of all the running that we did."
Piette said the players' familiarity with Garde should help.
"We know at the beginning it will hard on us physically," Piette said. "I think it'll be more intense than last year. At least we know what to expect."
The team will play two pre-season games in Florida before returning to Montreal on Feb. 7. Four days later, they will return to St. Petersburg, Fla., for three more pre-season contests.
The Impact went through a number of changes last season, from a new manager to many new faces on the team. Despite a slow start, the Impact fought for a playoff spot in the second half of the season, only to miss out on the final day of the regular season.
The Impact will need their fitness, and good fortune, for the start of the 2019 campaign. Eight of out the team’s first nine games will be on the road, and the Impact's struggles away from home have been well documented.
"We're going to have change that mentality of playing road games," Piette said. "When we play on the road, it's 11 versus 11 and sometimes 25,000 in the crowd. So it's harder. But we need a winning mentality even if we're not at home."
Garde figures the focus on fitness will give his team a boost.
"In football, it's important to be in good physical condition,” Garde said. "Throughout the course of the season, it can make a difference. I think our second half of the season was good because we needed time, to fix tactical and managing problems, but also because we were good physically,”
A handful of players, including Rod Fanni, Michael Petrasso, and Alejandro Silva, exited the club in the off-season. Midfielder Jeisson Vargas was initially listed on the training camp roster, but Garde confirmed he was in talks with some clubs in South America over a loan opportunity.
But the nucleus of Ignacio Piatti, Bush, and Saphir Taider, just to name a few, remains attack. Garde also added attacking threats in striker Maximiliano Urruti and winger Harry Novillo, who previously played under Garde at Olympique Lyonnais in France.
"(I'm) someone who likes to go forward," Novillo said. "I like to dribble. I don't want to dribble for nothing. I want to dribble to give an assist, the last ball to score, to try to shoot,"
Garde admits he would have liked to add a midfielder, but the team doesn't have much salary cap space to acquire another player. However, he says he's not afraid to start the season with the current roster.
"We know each other more," Piette said. "It's more or less the same team, the same core from last year. It's going to help us for the start of the season."
Montreal's first pre-season game will be against expansion team FC Cincinnati on Jan. 30.
Julian McKenzie, The Canadian Press