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Montreal Impact soccer fans cheer on their team outside the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Saturday, March 17, 2012, ahead of the Impact's first home MLS game against the Chicago Fire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes)
Montreal Impact soccer fans cheer on their team outside the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Saturday, March 17, 2012, ahead of the Impact's first home MLS game against the Chicago Fire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes)

Impact ready for Big O home opener Add to ...

In a city that revels in its reputation as a party town, this qualifies as a bona fide happening.

So if the Major League Soccer era in Montreal technically kicked off seven days ago, with the Impact’s visit to Vancouver, it officially begins at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, when the soccer circuit’s newest entry is expected to break a 31-year-old attendance record.

More than 55,000 tickets for the home opener have already been snapped up, which suggests Saturday’s crowd will be the largest to assemble for a professional soccer game in Montreal – it might even eclipse the Canadian record of 60,342, set by the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1983.

The single largest purchaser of tickets to the game may well be Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier, the only Quebec-born member of the squad, who said he has about 300 relatives and friends who will attend the game. His parents will be sitting in the front row.

“I think I’ll focus on 300 rather than 60,000, it’s a bit more manageable,” he joked on Friday.

The 32-year-old Canadian international has played on some major stages in a career that has taken him to Germany, Norway and Denmark, but this one’s different.

“I never would have thought that you could [get]50,000 people out to this stadium for a soccer game … it’s not something that happens all that often in North America, now it’s up to us to deliver a product that will keep them coming back,” he said.

The opposition on Saturday comes in the form of the Chicago Fire – which closes a circle that spans across three decades.

On Sept. 2, 1981, the Montreal Manic of the old NASL attracted 58,542 for a playoff game against the Chicago team of the day. And it was a stormer – the visitors leapt out to a 2-0 lead, but the Manic roared back to win 3-2.

Those were the halcyon days of the NASL, which then employed the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best. The Manic had some big names of their own, including former Manchester United winger Gordon Hill.

The Manic flamed out in Montreal three years after it arrived (the NASL as a whole did likewise), a cautionary tale for Impact owner Joey Saputo.

“I think maybe we had too much too soon,” former Manic president Roger Samson said.

Samson said the Impact would do well to avoid the mistakes the Manic made – notably, taking shortcuts to success by signing pricey import players.

“I think to have a durable franchise, you need to build it on local talent – I don’t mean kids from St-Leonard, I mean North American players,” he said.

At the same time, Samson said Saputo is to be commended for his perseverance in bringing top-flight soccer back to Montreal and his efforts to nurture the grassroots in Quebec. “I would be thrilled if the [attendance]record falls.”

The Impact, then in the North American second division, gave it the college try in 2009 against Mexico’s Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League before 55,571.

Saturday’s tilt is the first of six home games the Impact will play at the Big O – the team’s regular home, Saputo Stadium, is being expanded – and judging from the promotional push in the city this week, this weekend could bolster season-ticket sales, which have been disappointing to this point.

Results on the pitch will of course help in that endeavour. The Impact is expected to field the same starting 11 that lost 2-0 to Vancouver a week ago.

Head coach Jesse Marsch said he’s prepared his charges for the din from what is expected to be a boisterous crowd, as well as the emotions of playing the first MLS game on home turf.

“With a big crowd everybody wants to show well … different guys deal with it in different ways. When I look back on my career, I love these kinds of games. These are the kinds of games as a player that you die for. You don’t get many of these in a career, you don’t get many of them in a lifetime,” Marsch said. “It’s an important moment, we want to do well … but realistically it’s just another step along the way. And to treat it as more than that would, I think, get us away from what we’ve tried to be as a team.”

Impact midfielder Justin Mapp played eight seasons with the Fire, and said he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“It’s great, it comes with a bit of pressure and responsibility at the same time. … Having that crowd support behind us will be big for our team, it’s up to us to get it done on the field,” he said. “You hear about the excitement, that people are looking forward to having the team here, but we’ll get our first chance to really feel that on Saturday.”

The Impact will be bolstered by a new arrival: 35-year-old Italian striker Bernardo Corradi, who has played for major professional clubs such as Lazio and Manchester City. Corradi signed this week and will be available to play.

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