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Argentine midfielder Romero one of few bright spots with struggling Impact

Montreal Impact's Andres Romero follows the ball during first half MLS soccer action against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday June 25, 2014. It was surprising to see Romero back with the Montreal Impact after a weak 2013 campaign that ended in a three-game suspension for a fight in a playoff game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Montreal Impact's Andres Romero follows the ball during first half MLS soccer action against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday June 25, 2014. It was surprising to see Romero back with the Montreal Impact after a weak 2013 campaign that ended in a three-game suspension for a fight in a playoff game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

MONTREAL - It is as if a whole new player named Andres Romero joined the Montreal Impact this season.

The bungler who repeatedly gave up the ball and wasted scoring chances in 2013 has become one of the few bright spots in a dismal campaign for the 4-15-5 Impact.

The Argentine midfielder is the team's co-leader with six goals, and has often been it's hardest-working and most dangerous player on attack. Fans that used to shout for Romero to be pulled out of games now miss him in the increasingly rare moments when he's not on the field.

"He may be our best player this year," Impact captain Patrice Bernier said Tuesday. "With Justin Mapp. We can't forget what he did earlier in the season."

The Impact have had little to celebrate this season, except qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League by beating Edmonton and Toronto en route to a Voyageurs Cup title. The Major League Soccer playoffs are all but out of reach with 10 regular season games left to play.

First-year coach Frank Klopas is looking to rebuild his team around youth, and he hopes that includes the 24-year-old Romero, who joined Montreal last season on loan from Brazilian club Tombense. The loan was renewed for the 2014 campaign, but Klopas would like to make it permanent.

"It's my plan," said Klopas. "I'd love to keep him, long term.

"He's at the age, like a lot of guys that we're bringing here, that we can build a team around and have continuity. We're going to work hard to make sure he stays here."

Few would have thought anyone would say that about Romero last season, when he had two goals in 30 appearances and often looked distracted and disinterested.

It seems it was just a matter of adjusting to a new city and a new league, as well as the fact that Romero's wife had stayed back in Argentina while waiting to have twins.

The poor season had an ugly end. Late in a 3-0 loss in Houston in the Impact's first-ever MLS playoff game on Nov. 1, Romero kicked a Dynamo player on the ground and ignited a mass showing match. He and striker Marco Di Vaio were sent off and later handed three-game suspensions to be served at the start of the 2014 season.

Team president Joey Saputo was moved to apologize to the fans and the league for his players' behaviour, saying: "This is not the image we want to project for our club."

One would think that a player who performed badly and embarrassed his club would not be invited back, but Nick DeSantis, the former sporting director, defended Romero vigorously when asked about him after the season was over.

It turns out De Santis was right, because Romero bounced back with an impressive season, even as the team went into a skid.

"You could get glimpses of Andres last season where you could see he can be a special player, but it's about consistency," said Klopas. "It's important to have someone who believes in him.

"Andres has not been a surprise for me, because I knew what he can do, but the surprise has just been his mentality and his ability to be a guy that can be a difference-maker every game."

Romero, who spoke to reporters through a translator, joked that Klopas only said nice things about him because he paid him to.

He also said he's playing more confidence this season, that he likes the city and the team and that he'd like to be back next season if a contract can be worked out.

That fellow Argentine Ignacio Piatti has joined the club as a designated player on a 3.5-year contract may make staying an even more attractive option for Romero.

"More quality on the team — you get excited to play with players like that," said Klopas. " But Andres brought his A-game from the beginning this season."

They Impact are coming off what Bernier called "probably our best week of the year," in which they beat Chicago 1-0 at home and won 3-2 in CONCACAF play in El Salvador despite having a man (Felipe) sent off before falling 4-2 away to Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls.

The team is back in action Saturday at home against Columbus. They should have left back Eric Miller back from injury, but Mapp, defenders Heath Pearce and Futty Danso and midfielder Gorka Larrea are not expected to return.

The club also made a move to strengthen their back line with the signing Tuesday of Nigerian centre back Gege Soriola. The 25-year-old played the last three seasons with South African club Free State Stars. The six-foot-two defender has eight caps for Nigeria.

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