Montreal Impact fire Nick De Santis
MONTREAL -- The day many followers of the Montreal Impact thought would never come arrived on Wednesday, when owner Joey Saputo announced that longtime right-hand man Nick De Santis had been relieved of his duties as the club's sporting director.
Saputo and De Santis go back a long way.
De Santis, a former Canadian national team midfielder, joined the Impact for its inaugural season in 1993 and had more or less been by his boss' side ever since, helping the club win a bevy of championships at the minor league level -- first as a player, then as a coach and general manager -- success that paved the way for its ascension to Major League Soccer for the start of the 2012 season.
"In business, the most difficult decisions to make are those involving emotions," was how Saputo began Wednesday's news conference inside the stadium that bears his name. "I am forced to make this decision with a heavy heart."
The move was a necessary one.
After qualifying, barely, for the MLS playoffs last year, the Impact failed to upgrade their roster during the offseason and have the worst record (3-5-12) in the 19-team league more than halfway through the 2014 campaign.
They've had three coaches (Jesse Marsch, Marco Schallibaum and current boss Frank Klopas) in three years. Though it all, the common denominator was De Santis --something that wasn't lost on fans as far back as April following an abysmal start.
With the team mired in a five-game losing streak, Saputo finally decided he had no choice but to remove the man many had come to view as untouchable. Indeed, De Santis will remain with the club in a to-be-determined administrative role.
"There's a certain amount of accountability that you have to take... unfortunately we're not where we want to be and he's paying a price for it," Saputo said. "We wanted to send a signal to our fans that we want changes and also to our players that its time to change."
The changes, however, will not include Klopas.
Saputo confirmed that the former Chicago Fire coach, who was hired to replace Schallibaum last December, will be given the latitude to construct the team in his image. It's a process that has already begun; on Tuesday, the Impact announced the acquisition of 24-year-old Klopas favorite Dilly Duka from the Fire in exchange for fellow midfielder Sanna Nyassi.
"I think it's only fair to give Frank the opportunity to start building the club moving forward," Saputo said. "He's been a coach, he's been a sporting director and he's been a general manager [in Chicago]. He understands the league, so I want to give him the opportunity to succeed, to build the club that he wants to build."
In addition to Duka, Argentine midfielder Ignacio Piatti, signed as a designated player on July 2 but currently participating in the Copa Libertadores with San Lorenzo, is expected to arrive next month.
But even with 14 games left in the regular season, the bulk of the inevitable roster reconstruction will occur during the winter, Saputo said. The MLS summer transfer window closes Aug. 8, and while Saputo indicated the team could still make non-DP additions and that reinforcements from within the league could arrive later via trade, he made clear he doesn't "foresee changing seven or eight players between now and the end of the season."
In any case, Klopas has time. And after De Santis' ouster, that might be the biggest piece of news to emerge from Montreal on Wednesday.
What the Impact has lacked more than anything during its almost three seasons in MLS has been stability on the sideline. Sticking with a coach -- not a sporting director -- has been the hallmark successful teams for the better part of a decade; not since 2005 has a club won MLS Cup with a coach who had spent fewer than two full seasons at the helm.
"Frank will have his job through next season," Saputo said, admitting that while Klopas and De Santis "are good friends," the club may have been guilty of having too many cooks in the kitchen. "He signed a two-year contract with an option for a third year, and I plan to honor that contract."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.