Montreal Impact season preview: Facing uphill battle | Soccer | CBC Sports

SoccerMontreal Impact season preview: Facing uphill battle

Posted: Saturday, March 10, 2012 | 02:26 AM

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Montreal Impact's Davy Arnaud, 2nd left, listens to head coach Jesse Marsch, as he talks with players during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday. The Impact will play their first game as an MLS team in Vancouver on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press) Montreal Impact's Davy Arnaud, 2nd left, listens to head coach Jesse Marsch, as he talks with players during a training session in Montreal on Tuesday. The Impact will play their first game as an MLS team in Vancouver on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

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There is a joke in Canadian soccer circles that says that the Montreal Impact's season doesn't officially start until they have fired at least one coach. For first-time head coach Jesse Marsch, that's a trend he's hoping to reverse. CBCSports.ca takes a look at what Montreal needs to do early and often to have a good first year in MLS.
There is a joke in Canadian soccer circles that says that the Montreal Impact's season doesn't officially start until they have fired at least one coach. 

The Impact have gone through four coaches since 2008 and each time, after a slow start, the team seems to find its legs and go on terrific runs of success under their new bench manager.

For first-time head coach Jesse Marsch, that's a trend he's hoping to reverse. Charged with launching the Impact in its first season in MLS, he will be facing an uphill battle as he seeks to bring a mix of journeymen MLSers, division two standouts and a sprinkling of European talent together.

But as someone who has seen success with expansion franchises before - he won MLS Cups as a player with Chicago and D.C. United in their respective first years - Marsch knows a little something about inaugural year pressures.

And that's good - in a town that doesn't forgive failure easily, Marsch and the Impact won't get much of a honeymoon if they get off to a start slow.

CBCSports.ca takes a look at what Montreal needs to do early and often to have a good first year in MLS.

QUICK FACTS:

2011 record (NASL): 9-11-8, 35 points (7th in NASL)
2011 result: Didn't make the playoffs, lost to Vancouver in the Voyageurs Cup
Key additions for 2012: Davy Arnaud, Donovan Ricketts, Matteo Ferrari, Nelson Rivas, Patrice Bernier, Justin Mapp
Draft picks: Andrew Wenger, Evan James
Key losses: Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson

GOALKEEPING

In net, Montreal finds itself flush with three competent keepers but all that come with a certain price.

Two seasons removed from an MLS goaltender of the year performance, the starting job is Donovan Ricketts' to lose. The Jamaican international has proven he has what it takes to lead contending teams deep into the playoffs - he made the 2009 final with the LA Galaxy - but he has also proven to be injury prone, missing significant chunks of time over the past two years.

No stranger to injury himself is former Toronto FC keeper Greg Sutton. Sutton was the starting goalie for TFC during the first season when he suffered a bad concussion while away on national team duty, that ended up sidelining him for year. It wasn't his first and it wasn't his last. Sutton took a bad knock early in 2011 when playing for the New York Red Bulls and saw potential playing time diminished by his latest injury. Despite being a backup, Sutton will still see time this season in competitions like the Voyageurs Cup.

Their third option is an MLS rookie, but no stranger to professional football.  Evan Bush, the Akron Zips standout, kicked around the lower divisions of North America after graduating until landing with Montreal in the NASL last season. Bush promptly won the NASL Golden Glove award in 2011, a distinction that goes to the goalie with the best goals against in the league. He won't see a lot of time as a rookie, but he could find himself thrust into a supporting role if either of the veterans go down with injury.

DEFENCE

If Marsch has made one thing clear in his first season, it's that he's intent to build from the back.

Grabbing internationals Nelson Rivas and Matteo Ferrari were real coups for the club, but perhaps their savviest move of the off-season was nicking Zarek Valentin from Chivas USA in the expansion draft.

Valentin is an American U-23 star who the club can build on in the years ahead. He's still a pup, but he won't get much time to get blooded. A pre-season injury to Rivas, the former Inter Milan centreback, will put heavy responsibility on Valentin in the early going. And while Rivas is only expected to miss a month of action, it throws an early test into Marsch's plans. One that Montreal's first-overall pick in the SuperDraft, Andrew Wenger, will likely be expected to solve. 

MIDFIELD

While every city puts extra emphasis on having a hometown success story in the side, the Quebecois, and Montreal in particular, put heavy value in having players with a strong connection to the community. That's why, in the off-season, with little Canadian content and even less Quebec content to show, the Impact came under fire from their fans and media.

They quickly silenced those critics though by signing one of the best players to ever come out of the province in Patrice Bernier.

Bernier, who had openly expressed a desire to return to Montreal, the place where he started his professional career, went as far as to structure his last contract with Denmark's Lyngby BK in a way that he could opt out if Montreal came calling. And call they did - repeatedly.

For as much as Bernier brings to their midfield in a stabilizing role and one that can find the net when it's needed, he brings cultural influence, too. As one of the few players on the squad who can speak fluently to both the English and French media, he will not only be the face of the team, but often its voice. In a unique market like Montreal that cannot be undervalued as an asset.

But as actions on the field often speak louder than words in the dressing room, the rest of the midfield will have to do its part as well. The additions of MLS stalwarts Justin Mapp and Davy Arnaud will help to give the squad some much needed spine up the middle, but they'll need goals from them as well as Sanna Nyassi if they're going to be able to do anything this year.

FORWARDS

If there is one big question for Montreal, it is where is the scoring going to come from? At 38-years-old and freshly unretired, Eduardo Sebrango is likely just a place holder until the summer transfer window.

President Joey Saputo has been hinting at a big name designated player signing to come and with their lack of fire power up front, that would seem like a natural solution. But while Sebrango may just be a temporary signing, he also represents what is most likely their best option to find the net with any kind of regularity.

The summer transfer window is still a long ways off so that means the likes of Justin Braun and Mike Fucito will be charged with scoring some goals. That will be a big ask as Braun is a goal every three games kind of player and Fucito only has three goals to his professional name.

OUTLOOK

In MLS, accumulating a number of draws is what quickly eliminates you from playoff contention. And right now, with a strong backline, consistent midfield and little to no scoring, Montreal is quickly shaping up to be a nil-nil kind of team.

That's not to say they can't compete in MLS - the Portland Timbers did very well in their first year by building a similar kind of club - but they will be forced to rely heavily on their goaltending and backline to keep them in most games.

Couple that with the hesitancy of a first-time head coach - the kind that often leads them to settle for a draw in favour of not chasing a win - and it doesn't exactly add up to a first-year success.

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