Montreal Impact have only been a team in MLS for just over a year and already there are signs of them being the league’s leading force.
The Impact joined MLS at the start of 2012 as an expansion team to become the 19th club (with a second NY team reportedly entering in 2016, through alleged investment coming from Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour expected to make that 20) and third Canadian club to join. Last season the Quebec based side finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, just missing out on the playoffs under Head Coach Jesse Marsch. Although this is not outstanding, for a team just starting playing in America’s leading soccer division it was a promising start.
Montreal gained a lot of exposure in 2012 on both the domestic and international level with a number of notable signings. One was Alessandro Nesta – a man considered one of the best centre backs to have ever graced the game who surprisingly did not join up on a Designated Player contract. He entered a team with a number of fellow world renowned Italians; Matteo Ferrari, ex-Manchester City flop Bernardo Corradi (he left at the end of 2012) and Marco Di Vaio, a true poacher. It was clear that an Italian contingent was being built, and this has been continued into 2013 with Andrea Pisanu and Daniele Poponi coming in on loan from Serie A outfit Bologna.
However, there is still an American/Canadian spine to the team which is what has led to Montreal’s recent successes. ‘Keeper Troy Perkins, Justin Mapp, captain Davy Arnaud and Patrice Bernier all have been regular fixtures in the starting XI since the clubs’ MLS beginning. Bernier seems a completely new player since his return to the Impact.
This is a man who saw his time in Scandinavia and a brief spell in Bundesliga proving fruitless, and returned to his original club (Montreal were in NASL at the time) in 2012 to become the club’s MVP whilst scoring 10 and creating 11 assists over his one and a half years in MLS. Perkins has been a superb replacement for Donovan Ricketts whilst Mapp and Arnaud (who scored a stunner against Seattle Sounders earlier this season) have provided energy and professionalism, performing consistently throughout their time at the club. With so many talented Canadians/Americans in the side, it would be unfair to say that Montreal were becoming overrun with foreign imports.
In 2013, Montreal have been on a continuing upward trajectory. The Impact sit top of the Eastern Conference with an impressive record of 5-1-1. At the end of the 2012 season, Montreal surprisingly sacked Head Coach Jesse Marsch for ‘philosophical differences’ and replaced him with Marco Schällibaum. The Swiss’ managerial career had only been in his home nation before a move across the Atlantic and before taking the job was a UEFA technical advisor at the time of appointment. Many in the American soccer community were skeptical and who could blame them? Very few foreign managers had been successful in MLS with their failure to properly grasp the rules was put into question (Hans Backe, the ex-New York Red Bulls coach being the last of a long list). Anyway, Schällibaum looks to be proving the doubters wrong. His pragmatic approach has thus far been successful as he tends to set out his side in a 4-1-4-1 formation, looking to prey on opposition mistakes and hit them fast on the counter (although last weekend Paponi made his debut alongside strike partner Marco Di Vaio, making it a 4-4-2 which looked to be working).
New acquisitions such as Andres Romero on loan from Tombense and Pisanu have looked impressive and look to be cementing themselves first team places. However, the player who stands out for me is Felipe – a tricky little Brazilian who predominantly plays as a CAM and has formed a formidable partnership with Di Vaio up front; he is certainly one to watch carefully. Di Vaio has been excellent so far this season, scoring four in seven games which is only one less then he got all of last season. He seems to have adapted to the league nicely and is quickly proving himself to be one of the league’s deadliest strikers. Montreal are playing good football with Schällibaum at the helm and he looks to be slowly building an increasingly lethal team who could well see themselves in the play-offs.
Credit must be given to owner Joey Saputo for the club’s rapid progression. The newly built Saputo Stadium has been attracting high attendances which is so unusual for an expansion team. Furthermore, the Sporting Director Nick de Santis should also be given some recognition for developing a scouting network which has brought players over from South America and Italy who perhaps were overlooked by others and persuading the likes of Nesta and Di Vaio to continue their career in Canada.
For a team to enter MLS in 2012 and then begin to take it by storm in 2013 should not be understated. Montreal has some excellent players and more importantly, good people behind the scenes and a loyal fan base who want to see the Impact as a leading continental power. Time will tell whether Montreal Impact can achieve their future goals. At the moment, things are very promising.