The Montreal Impact enter their sophomore season as an operational MLS franchise, looking like potential contenders in the Eastern Conference after an inaugural campaign that would have been just one point of out of a playoff spot in the West. After a strong preseason showing, a revamped roster showed that it is already coming together as a cohesive, confident unit that can easily present problems for Columbus, Houston and the other teams that finished ahead of them in the conference standings.
Marco Schallibaum, the Swiss head coach of the Impact who spent his entire playing and managing career in his native country before moving to Montreal last season, has a European-tinged roster that has developed great synergy. With upgrades at every position, Schallibaum has been provided with every means to get the Impact to the postseason.
The question is whether they have improved well enough relative to an already-deep Eastern Conference that doesn’t look to get any weaker in 2013. Can the Montreal Impact give the home fans at Saputo Stadium something to roar about by forcing their way into the postseason picture?
The Impact had an undefeated postseason performance at the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge in Orlando. After falling behind early in their opener to Sporting Kansas City on a Graham Zusi strike, Montreal’s attack pressed forward and was rewarded for their offense on either side of halftime. Italian veteran Marco Di Vaio equalized in stoppage time before the intermission, and youngsters Maxim Tissot and Andrew Wenger connected for the winner in the 2-1 defeat of last year’s regular-season champs in the East.
Di Vaio scored two more as Montreal stomped the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in their second match of group play. In addition to the Italian’s goals, Felipe Martins and Sanna Nyassi contributed strikes as the Impact rolled to an easy 4-1 victory. Throughout the match midfield addition Andrea Pisanu proved a catalytic influence from box to box, showing great synergy with his compatriot Di Vaio.
The only hiccup in the preseason came against DC United in the final match to determine seeding in the final playoff in Orlando. Pisanu struck a highlight-reel overhead kick that fooled United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and it appeared the Impact were going to finish their group stage a perfect 3-0-0. But DC trialist Kyle Porter found himself free in the 85th minute, beating Montreal keeper Troy Perkins for the late equalizer that forced the 1-1 draw. Despite missing out on perfection, the Impact nevertheless qualified for the championship final against the Columbus Crew.
Against Columbus, the team that finished directly ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings, the Impact fended off an early onslaught by the Crew and continued to counter until earning a corner kick in the 54th minute. Pisanu swung the ball in near the penalty spot, where Columbus cleared directly to Justin Mapp. The ten-year veteran beat Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum with the rebound for the only goal of the night, concluding Montreal’s preseason at 3-0-1 and earning the Impact the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge title ahead of the season.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
After returning to MLS in 2010 following a sting with Norwegian club Valerenga, Troy Perkins has bounced around the league from DC to Portland before settling in Montreal last season. The veteran keeper played nine games for the Impact last season, going 3-3-3 with 0.89 goals against per game after being swapped for Donovan Ricketts in a trade with the Timbers. He should lock down the starting role ahead of Evan Bush and 2013 SuperDraft selection Brad Stuver.
The team employs former Italian national team veterans Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari in central defense. Both bring a slew of Serie A and other European experience to anchor the back line. At fullback, 2012 team MVP Hassoun Camara patrols one side of the pitch while Jeb Brovsky mans the opposite edge. Maxim Tissot, a trialist who impressed enough in the preseason to earn a full contract with the club, offers strong defense and counterattacking skills for the unit. Zarek Valentin, Calum Mallace, Nelson Rivas and Dennis Iapichino also earned minutes last season and will provide welcome relief for the two mid-30s veterans anchoring the back four.
Pisanu headlines a strong midfield unit after his arrival on loan from Serie A side Bologna. Playing as an attacking filter in Schallibaum’s system behind the striker, Pisanu will drive the offense for Montreal. Team captain Davy Arnaud will anchor one wing, with Quebec native Patrice Bernier on the other wing. Felipe is part of that attacking triangle with Pisanu, and either Justin Mapp or Sanna Nyassi will earn most of the starts at the last midfield spot. Collen Warner could also push them for play after starting 27 games in 2012. Bosnian vet Sinisa Ubiparipovic will have to fight for playing time, as will Wandrille Lefèvre and 2013 SuperDraft selection Blake Smith.
Di Vaio is undoubtedly the starting striker for the Impact. The club’s Designated Player, a 35-year-old who scored 142 Serie A goals in his home league and also played in Spain and France, Di Vaio proved this preseason that he still has plenty of gas in his legs to terrorize MLS goalkeepers throughout the season. Montreal will also find playing time for Andrew Wenger, the first overall selection in the 2012 SuperDraft who showed his own poaching prowess in the preseason. Backing both up is Andrés Romero, the Argentinian who signed with the club over the offseason.
All the tools are there for Montreal to be an impact in more than name this season. Schallibaum has a loaded roster that shows few deficiencies and enters the season both healthy and on a hot streak after a victorious preseason. The Quebecois club should improve rather than slump in its sophomore season, contending for the playoffs through the entire regular season and offering a surprise or two to more established sides along the way.