By Ridge Mahoney
Owner Joey Saputo earned a reputation for boldness while overseeing the Montreal Impact’s years in the minor leagues, and that persona hasn’t changed with an upgrade to MLS.
The hiring of Jesse Marsch as his first MLS head coach raised a few eyebrows, and after an encouraging first season that nearly snagged a playoff spot, Saputo shook it up again by dismissing the former Chivas USA and U.S. national team assistant coach. Officially, they differed on the team’s future direction; unofficially, a veteran or two steeped in the European game also differed with their young, red-white-and-blue leader.
A more cosmopolitan choice, Swiss-born Marco Schallibaum, came aboard in early January. Most of the players he inherited are still around, and technically the loan deal that brought playmaker Andrea Pisanu from Bologna had already been concluded when he arrived.
Pisanu scored a fabulous goal with an overhead kick in a 1-1 preseason match with D.C. United, and those up off the bench in celebration included Saputo. (Yes, he’s very hands-on.)
The addition of Pisanu to a midfield already stocked with Felipe, Patrice Bernier, Davy Arnaud, Collen Warner and Sinisa Ubiparipovic caused a lot of shuffling around during preseason as the team also auditioned trialists of varying ability. There’s reason to uproot a team that went 12-16-6 (42 points) in its expansion year; the new coach is serving an ambitious owner and being asked to make up the 11 points that separated Montreal from the playoffs.
There is a need for depth. Much of the team’s spine -- defenders Alessandro Nesta (36) and Matteo Ferrari (33), forward Marco di Vaio (36) and Bernier (33) -- are on the old-ish side. Fortunately, there’s a fleet of players younger than 25 -- Jeb Brovsky, Dennis Iapichino, Calum Mallace, Zarek Valentin, Felipe, Warner, and 2012 SuperDraft No. 1 pick Andrew Wenger -- who are hungry for action.
Di Vaio and Wenger scored in a 2-1 preseason defeat of defending conference champion Sporting Kansas City Feb. 9. Wenger scored just seconds after replacing di Vaio on the hour mark; that scenario might be repeated often in 2013.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Ex-Sounder Lamar Neagle was traded back to Seattle in late January, and Argentine forward Andres Romero joined Pisanu as a second loan signing, arriving from small Brazilian club Tombense two weeks ago. He’s been playing on the right side of midfield in a 4-5-1 formation with di Vaio as the lone forward, and will also vie with Wenger and others to replace the former Italian international when he needs a break.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Once the Impact got rolling, Bernier and Felipe formed a very potent partnership: they combined for 13 goals and 18 assists. With another attacking catalyst in Pisanu and forward options for Di Vaio, Montreal can avoid barren runs like the six-game stretch at the end of the season (after a five-game winning streak) that produced just three goals. Veteran Troy Perkins compiled a 0.89 goals-allowed average in nine games after arriving in a trade as exchange for Donovan Ricketts (1.64).
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Schallibaum doesn’t know the league, and a new coach normally needs considerable time to truly understand how it works on and off the field. The defense hasn’t changed a lot, and only three teams conceded more than its 51 goals-allowed last year, so the precepts of smart positioning and pressure on the ball must be improved across the board.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Felipe is only 22, yet brings the bravado and flair that can ignite a game at any time. Watching the Impact’s Serie A veterans -- a group that also includes Nelson Rivas -- is a study in
anticipation and intelligent movement, though sometimes those elements can be submerged by frantic play. Sanna Nyassi scored six goals as a part-time starter injected for his pace, and if Pisanu can consistently conjure up gems like his overhead kick against D.C. United, the Impact will be among the league’s most stylish as well as dynamic teams.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland