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Montreal Impact: 2013 season preview

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Keeping mercurial forward Marco Di Vaio, top, motivated will be an important job for Montreal’s new coach Marco Schallibaum. (Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

By Ben Rycroft – Thursday, February 28, 2013

The fact that former Montreal Impact coach Jesse Marsch lasted an entire season is a minor miracle. On a club that has now gone through five coaches since 2008, it would seem that job security isn’t something bench bosses at Stade Saputo should expect.

President and owner Joey Saputo went way out of the box when he brought in head coach Marco Schallibaum, who has led five different clubs in the Swiss first division over his career. Schallibaum hasn’t led a club since 2011 — he worked as a FIFA instructor between jobs — but he can expect Saputo and Impact sporting director Nick De Santis to keep a watchful eye on their new hire.

In fact, you can assume Saputo and De Santis will have their fingerprints all over the on- and off-field moves as Schallibaum seems tailor-made to be their puppet — a role Marsch reportedly refused to play.

Here’s a look at how Montreal is aiming to take its squad to the next step and why the Impact are built to win now.

Quick Facts

  • 2012 record: 12-16-6, 34 points (7th in Eastern Conference).
  • 2012 result: Failed to make MLS playoffs.
  • Key additions for 2013: Midfielder Andrea Pisanu.
  • Draft picks: Midfielder Blake Smith, midfielder Fernando Monge.
  • Key losses: Midfielder Josh Gardner

Goalkeeping

Donovan Ricketts took much of the criticism leveled at Montreal’s less-than-stellar defensive performance last year. Questions about his fitness, coupled with some unfortunate miscues, were enough to turn the Impact brass against the aging Jamaican. Whether or not those accusations were fair, or the expectations were just that high for the expansion squad, it resulted in Ricketts being shipped off to Portland in exchange for goaltender Troy Perkins.

Perkins came in and performed admirably. While Montreal only managed three wins during his nine starts, he was able to stop some of the bleeding by allowing less than a goal per game during that time. Heading into this season, the job is Perkins’s to lose.

He’ll get no real immediate competition from backup Evan Bush. 2013 SuperDraft selection Brad Stuver has all the right skills to be a competent backup and eventual starter, but it will be a while before he gets his chance.

Defence

With big names like Alessandro Nesta and Mateo Ferrari patrolling the back line, it’s easy to forget the contributions of Jeb Brovsky, who switched from midfield when injuries hit the star centre backs. His athleticism on the flank often went unnoticed, and the kind of work he does won’t always stand out to casual eyes. But he does what is expected of MLS defenders — he tackles hard and possesses both the speed to get back when caught out of position and the soccer intelligence to know when to start the counter-attack.

The young American flourished under Marsch’s tutelage and found himself, as an MLS sophomore, starting the majority of 2012 games. How he will fair under Schallibaum’s new regime may be of concern, but if Nesta and Ferrari are lost to injury, as they were for most of last season, Brovsky will once again be expected to raise his game in just his third year in the league while stepping into a leadership role.

Midfield

On a team that has 11 different nationalities in its clubhouse, midfield is the one area of the pitch that continues to be dominated by North Americans. But an Italian has been brought in to help change the unit’s fortunes.

Montreal will continue to look to the likes of Canadian Patrice Bernier and Americans Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp to control the play through the midfield. Whether that will result in a diamond or flat four formation is yet to be determined, but the arrival of Italian Andrea Pisanu on loan from Bologna gives some indication of what to expect from Montreal’s midfield this season.

Bernier, Arnaud and Mapp are all considered strong on the wing or useful as the attacking midfielder. Pisanu too is regarded as a mid who likes to get forward into the attack. He’s also consistently been the starting point for aggressive play into the opposing end.

Who that leaves as the Impact’s holding midfielder, there to support the back line, is anybody’s guess — and should be of concern. But if their intent is to attack, Montreal is flush with options.

Forwards

As one of the most prolific scorers in the history of first division soccer in Italy, it’s safe to say expectations were high for Marco Di Vaio during Montreal’s expansion season. It’s also safe to say that, as the club’s first designated player, he didn’t exactly live up to those expectations. Five goals in 17 games simply won’t cut it for a man who tallied 142 times during his stay in Serie A.

In fact, it was rookie Andrew Wenger, who missed a chunk of his first season to finish his post-secondary studies, who provided the best hope for Montreal going forward.

Wenger came into the season as a man without a position. The first overall draft pick, so gifted at the game, was thought to be capable of playing either striker, midfielder or defence. He was given the striker post and, while he needs to continue to learn that position and polish his potential, Wenger managed to score four times in just seven starts. At 22 years old, words like “upside” don’t really encapsulate the talent this young man has.

If Di Vaio, nearly 14 years Wenger’s senior, can stay healthy (and interested) the pair will complement each other nicely. If Di Vaio checks out early as he did last season, it will continue to be a steep learning curve for the young American.

Outlook

Head coach Schallibaum may be touted as the yes-man to the wishes of Joey Saputo and Nick De Santis, but his greatest trait (and an especially important one in culturally sensitive Montreal) may be his ability to navigate four languages — German, English, French and Italian.

While speaking French is always a priority in Quebec, it is perhaps Schallibaum’s Italian that will be of greatest use to the new head coach. Montreal’s high-profile Italian players led a minor coup last season under Jesse Marsch. The Italians reportedly considered the American coach arrogant and inexperienced and they often used their language barrier to mock the former bench boss. That kind of open dissent is never healthy in a club, and it will be on Schallibaum to bring some of the egos into check.

The biggest of those egos could be Joey Saputo’s. The club president has shown that he has no patience for underachieving teams, and he speaks of his squad as one with MLS playoff ambitions. Schallibaum can expect nothing different when it comes to appraising his abilities as a leader.

The Impact’s aging squad is built to win now, so expect a full-on push for the playoffs, even if it comes at the expense of their — and their coach’s — future.

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