MONTREAL – “I’m very happy to win my first game in MLS,” Alessandro Nesta said after Montreal’s 3-1 win over New York, the former AC Milan defender making his Major League Soccer debut. Giving a brief television interview in an language he’s yet to master, Nesta let English do something the Red Bulls never could – make him look nervous. During 90 minutes on Saturday at Stade Saputo, Nesta never made a wrong move.
Still, in the first 30 minutes, Nesta seemed uncertain of his surroundings, constantly looking around to make sure his positioning was correct. Turning to his left to find his man, turning to the right to find the ball – Nesta was shaking off the rust. He hadn’t played in two months. At 36 years old, it’s not so easy to get back into a groove.
Just before halftime, you saw that groove return. Nesta wasn’t just waiting for the play to come to him. He began bursting off his line, into midfield, helping Montreal maintain pressure in New York’s half. In the 42nd minute, he took the ball off Joel Lindpere. One minute later, he beat Kenny Cooper to a Thierry Henry flick just inside the Red Bull half. In the 45th minute, he ventured toward the attacking third to help keep the ball in. The period ended with New York pinned deep in their own end, Nesta not letting the ball into Montreal’s half.
“Everything that you see in him is that he’s a real guy,” head coach Jesse Marsch said after the match, confirming he expected Nesta’s strong performance. “Everything from the way he sees plays, to the plays he makes, to the way he talks to his teammates, to the leadership he shows on the field, to the understanding of what it takes to get things done and win. He’s one of the most real guys I’ve ever been around in terms of all these categories.”
Nesta had a real effect on the scoresheet. In the teams’ two previous meetings, Montreal gave up seven goals. On Saturday, there were only a handful of chances. Montreal controlled most of the game. With Nesta and Nelson Rivas (returning from injury) starting in the middle, the Red Bulls were forced to work outside-in.
The result was Montreal’s most complete performance of the season.
“The way that we controlled the game and how we were organized made it hard on them,” Marsch explained. “We made it hard on [Thierry] Henry. We made it hard on their key guys.”
Kenny Cooper had one chance on a set piece but was otherwise quiet. Sebastien Le Toux never threatened goal, instead staying wide right, helping build play targeting Cooper and Henry. And for Henry’s part, much of his night was spent next to Nesta, left to watch as the former Italian international continuously cleaned up play before it got to him. Late in the match, Henry was dropping into midfield – to Lindpere’s level – to try and pick up the ball.
“For his whole career, [Nesta’s] made players around him better,” Marsch points out, his team coming off a performance were there were no weak links. “That’s what he does. Certainly that holds true for how he played tonight and what he did for our team tonight.”
For an MLS debut (one coming two months after his last competitive game), it’s difficult to image a better performance. Nesta could have scored a goal, but that’s not what defenders are about. Montreal could have kept a clean sheet, but Nesta had no part in the goal. Anything that came his way, Nesta cleaned up, and when not enough action was finding his right-center back position, he went forward and found it.
He even started the movement on Marco Di Vaio’s first MLS goal, though don’t expect that kind of added value off the pitch.
“Most important now is to get the wins,” Nesta explained, borrowing a page from Crash Davis when asked about his performance. Dealing with French, English, and Italian-speaking reporters did little to deter his business-like approach.
“We need to keep winning if we want to get into the playoffs.”