By IVES GALARCEP
When you take a look at the Montreal Impact roster, you don’t see a ton of changes, or the kind of excessive roster overhaul you can find on the squads of other teams that missed the MLS playoffs last year. In fact, you can argue the Impact have had one of the least active off-seasons in the league from a player personnel standpoint.
The real shake-up took place on the touch-line rather than on the bench. Jesse Marsch’s departure came as a bit of a surprise, but there had been a sense in Montreal for some time that upper management wanted a more European approach to running the team, a desire that surely facilitated Marsch’s exit sooner than most could have expected.
Enter Marco Schallibaum, a well-travelled coach with a plethora of languages spoken and a variety of jobs held. The definition of a journeyman, Schallibaum has taken the roster he inherited and shaped a squad that has the quality to recapture the improved form the team showed late in the 2012 season.
The Impact will have Marco DiVaio and Alessandro Nesta for a full season after the Italian veterans joined Montreal mid-way through the 2012 campaign. The addition of Italian forward Andrea Pisanu could give the Impact the strike partnership necessary to make the jump to being a playoff team.
Here is a closer look at the Montreal Impact ahead of the 2013 MLS season:
MONTREAL IMPACT SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 12-16-6 (seventh in the Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Andrea Pisanu, M Blake Smith, F Andres Romero, D Maxim Tissot.
KEY LOSSES: F/M Lamar Neagle, F Bernardo Corradi, D Josh Gardner, D Shavar Thomas,
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Andrea Pisanu can play as a second striker or as a right winger, and no matter where he is lined up, the Italian attacker will be a threat. He offers the Impact another dangerous creator to not only help provide service to DiVaio, but also to take some pressure off Felipe.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Alessandro Nesta. The Italian national team legend didn’t play at the level expected him him in 2012, but he has insisted that having a full pre-season with the team will help him get back to a high level. If Nesta can be a dominant centerback then the Impact can be a playoff team. If he struggles, Montreal will have a hard time break through in the East.
The Impact won 12 games in 2012, a league record for an expansion team, but their atrocious form on the road ultimately doomed them. They finished last season with a +12 goal differential at home, and a -18 goal differential on the road (only the Houston Dynamo had a greater disparity), something Schallibaum will be hoping to address by fielding a veteran lineup from the start of the season.
The Impact attack will go as far as DiViao takes them. He is the focal point, the team’s top attacker, and an irreplaceable force up front. Schallibaum has the option to either deploy him as the target in a 4-5-1, or partner DiVaio with Pisanu as a forward, or go with second-year forward Andrew Wenger.
The 4-5-1 seems, based on pre-season, to be the formation of choice, and with the midfield talent on the roster you can understand why. Felipe and Patrice Bernier remain the focus of the midfield, with Davy Arnaud’s energy providing the perfect blend with those two.
Justin Mapp should reprise his role on the left flank, while Schallibaum can either go with Pisanu on the right flank or Sanna Nyassi on the right wing. Pisanu has looked sharp on the right and should push Nyassi to the bench. Rookie Blake Smith isn’t likely to unseat Mapp just yet, but he has shown well in pre-season and has also shown an ability to play left back. His speed and service should get him on the field.
Montreal’s inconsistent defense was the team’s biggest weakness, allowing 51 goals in 2012 (fourth most in MLS). Matteo Ferrari emerged as a quality centerback, but he needs a consistent partner to help give the Impact some stability. Nesta is expected to be that player, but he’s also someone who has had a history of injuries. If he goes down, Montreal will have to consider Nelson Rivas, who showed well in 2012 before being sidelined with major knee surgery.
Veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins provided some stability after arriving from Portland, what with Donovan Ricketts enduring a below-par run in Montreal. Perkins can make solid saves, and control the area well, but he is not in the elite class of goalkeeper, and is more a second-tier netminder.
How Schallibaum approaches establishing a style will tell us what sort of season to expect. If he can instill better defensive discipline from front to back, and can help the team establish a better mentality on the road, then Montreal could certainly challenge for a playoff spot.
However, if Montreal’s defense remains inconsistent, and Nesta spends more time injured than playing well, the Impact will probably fall just short.