Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.
No. 9 in the East is the Montreal Impact:
Significant additions and subtractions: Foremost was the removal of Jesse Marsch as head coach (by mutual consent) after just one season in charge of the expansion team. The new boss is Marco Schallibaum, who is spending the preseason trying to get the team to think quicker and play quicker, with more one- and two-touch interchange.
Newcomers Blake Smith, Andrea Pisanu and Andrés Romero give the new coach plenty of options for outside midfield.
Strengths: Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari will be a strong central defensive pairing if Nesta can avoid being isolated, one-on-one, too far from goal. Not as quick as in his salad days back in Italy, the Italian veteran can be had out there.
Patrice Bernier went from unknown figure in MLS to one of the league’s top central midfielders last year. The Impact’s MVP in 2012 is back, although questions persist about whom best to partner him in the middle of Stade Saputo. Collen Warner, Calum Mallace and the impressively versatile Hassoun Camara are among Schallibaum’s options there.
Judging by one preseason lineup, captain Davy Arnaud looks like another central option, as well. The MLS veteran has played in the middle before, back with Kansas City.
The team went 10-4-3 at home last year.
Pressure points: The organization made a bold call in not retaining Marsch. By almost any standard of measure the club’s first year in MLS was a ringing success. The expansion Impact finished ahead of three teams in the East and was among the league’s stronger sides through the summer, once settled and past some of the lesser avoidably young club blues. Yes, the separation was by mutual consent, but never mind that. If the Impact takes a step backward in its sophomore season, that’s on the organization for not reaching compromise with the man (Marsch) who over achieved as a first-time coach.
With team captain Arnaud, Justin Mapp and Sanna Nyassi already in place at Stade Saputo, now being pushed by the new additions, the coaching staff has lots of options for two flank midfield spots. They need to get that one right or team accord could be in jeopardy.
Preseason reports say Pisanu is already on the same page with striker Marco Di Vaio, which means that Arnaud’s spot could be in jeopardy. We sure know that Pisanu can score goals, and isn’t afraid to try the audacious. Watch this one from a preseason game.
Difference maker: That’s a little bit of a problem. It could be Bernier, but there are a lot of miles to log over an MLS season for a 33-year-old central midfielder. It could be Di Vaio, but his rate of production has to rise from last year’s modest totals (5 goals in 17 appearances). It could be Nesta (pictured at right), whose ability to shepherd the back four is substantial, but whose vulnerability to younger, quicker type (as mentioned before) could be the rear guard’s undoing here and there.
If you have three guys who might be a difference maker, then you might not have one at all.
Potential breakout player: Pisanu, on loan from Bologna, has logged plenty of Serie A time, but is far from a known name in the new world.
Bottom line: The club is built around Bernier, Nesta and Di Vaio, all of whom are on the wrong side of 30. If they hold up, and if a new manager isn’t caught off guard by any MLS peculiarities, Montreal could possibly slip into the playoffs in its sophomore MLS season.