The Impact side that began MLS a year ago is a far cry from the one that will kick off its second season in Seattle on Saturday, but there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome.
For an expansion side, the Montreal Impact fared commendably in its first season in Major League Soccer last year as they managed to keep a playoff spot in their sights up until the very last weeks of the campaign. But the season was still marked by an underlying disappointment, a feeling that the team could have done much better than it did.
"People say that we had a great season because it was our first, but, for me the truth is that with the team we had, we should have made the playoffs this season,” defender Matteo Ferrari told reporters following the season’s completion.
The understanding at the club was that the Impact’s shortcomings in the first year were largely a result of tactical difficulties rather than a lack of talent in the squad, which is why not many roster changes have been made during the offseason.
The most noteworthy addition has been Andrea Pisanu. The winger, who’s on a one year loan from Bologna, has shown his quality in preseason. His link up play with former teammate and forward Marco Di Vaio has been especially encouraging, but his history of injury problems is a concern.
The Impact also signed winger Blake Smith through the MLS college draft, winger and forward Andrés Romero on a one year loan from Tombense FC in Brazil, as well as midfielder Wandrille Lefèvre and left fullback Maxim Tissot from the club’s academy. All these players will bring depth and alternatives that the team didn’t have last year.
The biggest change has been at the helm, where Swiss native Marco Schällibaum has taken the place of Jesse Marsch - who parted ways with the club last October. In December, sporting director Nick De Santis met Schällibaum in Switzerland and the two spent time analyzing Impact games from last season, where De Santis pointed out the areas he felt the team needed to improve.
The team’s play away from home was the biggest problem and Schällibaum has stressed that what has to change the most for Montreal on the road is, first and foremost, its mentality. There were several games last season on the road where the Impact would be level and would aggressively push for a win, but would lose the game instead.
“We have to learn that sometimes a draw on the road is a good result,” Schällibaum explained at his introductory press conference in January.
The Impact also had a propensity to leak goals. Having Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari together from the start will certainly help in that regard, but in preseason so far, Schällibaum has had a midfielder playing right in front of the back four, which helps lessen the space that opposing players have to get in between the midfield and defensive lines and run at defenses. This adjustment has been effective so far in preseason.
By the end of last year, the Impact had also become far too predictable going forward and MLS teams quickly began to figure them out – having someone sit deep and man mark Felipe usually did the trick. In preseason, Schällibaum had attacking players like Di Vaio, Justin Mapp, Felipe and Pisanu repeatedly swap places and often roam from their position to confuse opponents and add more fluidity and variety to the team’s attacks. The team tended to be static and mechanical last year. These new ideas might take some time getting used to.
There’s also the problem of defending set pieces, which Bernier once described as being a “nightmare” for the team. A big part of defending set pieces comes down to a willingness to painfully bang your head around, but understanding how to be organized in those situations is vitally important as well. Marsch never really seemed to have the solutions to these problems; whether Schällibaum does remains to be seen.
Schällibaum only has a one year contract, and getting an extension will depend on his team being able to make the playoffs. The Impact on their day can beat any team in the league – they proved it last season. The question is can they perform well on a consistent basis throughout the entire season. Can key players in their 30s like Nesta, Ferrari, Bernier, Pisanu and Di Vaio stay healthy?
A lot has been said in preseason about the Impact’s late game lapses last year and a supposedly faulty physical preparation. But perhaps their overall physical state is beyond repair. Perhaps a backline led by ageing players at centre back will inevitably lead to yet more goals conceded late in games.
Making the playoffs will likely come down to the Impact’s depth: positive contributions from players like Smith, Andrew Wenger, Calum Mallace and Karl Ouimette. A significant addition or two might be required over the course of the season, but that will entail some players having to leave, because the Impact have very little room on their cap.
Difficult decisions will have to be made. There are many questions surrounding this Impact side and a lot is still unknown. But clearly, they’re in a much better position than they were a year ago.