He might not admit it, but if the Impact are off to a dream start in their sophomore season in MLS, its because Marco Schällibaum's coaching has made a world of a difference.
Marco Schällibaum isn’t the type to prop himself up on a pedestal.
Any suggestion that the Swiss head coach has played an important part in the Montreal Impact’s remarkable season so far will be met with a now familiar retort: “But it’s not me, it’s the players”.
While it is true that the roster Schällibaum inherited from Jesse Marsch in January was already a very good one, the Impact finished last year’s expansion season in MLS riddled by lingering tactical issues, namely their inability to defend set pieces and acquire points away from home.
The biggest challenge for Schällibaum, however, would be earning the esteem of a very diverse locker-room, one which by the end of last year had become rife with division. Gaining the respect of the veteran stars – especially the influential and sometimes tetchy Italian contingent of Alessandro Nesta, Marco Di Vaio and Matteo Ferrari – would be particularly challenging and especially vital to building a strong unity and team spirit among the players.
But within the first days of preseason training camp in January, Schällibaum had already made a very good impression.
“We hadn’t heard too much about him, but he showed up on the first day and everybody was just attracted to him,” goalkeeper Troy Perkins told ExtraTime Radio this week. “His personality, his [training] methodology and the way he deals with players has been just phenomenal.”
At practices, some coaches like to oversee drills while standing outside the cones which mark the space of a given exercise, but Schällibaum often prefers to be right in the thick of things, standing in close proximity to his players. Casually strolling within the practice area, the Swiss native will, at almost every possible opportunity, praise his players for successfully applied technical gestures (a deft touch, a creative pass, a well-placed shot) but when errors are committed, no player is ever singled out in front of the group. If he feels a correction needs to be made, he stops the drill and addresses the team as a whole as if everyone is culpable.
And when he does speak to his players on the practice field it’s always in a very strong assertive tone - but it’s always passionate, never cruel.
“I’m not someone who is cold,” Schällibaum told Journal de Montreal in French. “I like contact, but I’m still quite demanding. I like to be close to my group because when you make a decision on the composition of a team, you have to be able to feel out the players and know when there are problems.”
But there’s also a sense that every time Schällibaum blows his whistle in training, the message that ensues is not going to just be hot air, but helpful and constructive.
"He takes the time to explain our mistakes,” Bernier said in January. “It's good to show a mistake, but it's better to explain why it happened and how to find a solution."
Throughout preseason, Schällibaum also organized multiple activities off the soccer field, everything from Kart racing to a kind of Amazing Race that included each team having to ingest several slimy insects. All of these outings were a way for Schällibaum to get to learn as much as he could about the personalities on his roster - being proficient in four different languages has been immensely beneficial in that regard.
Taking the time to learn about his players has gone a long way to helping Schällibaum get the best out of them. Justin Mapp, who’s had a terrific season so far, is a case in point.
“I knew Justin from the DVDs I saw [before I arrived in Montreal] but when I came I found a very shy man and now he’s growing stronger in his mentality – this was where he needed to make a lot of progress, because [there’s no question that] he can play,” Schällibaum told reporters after an exhilarating 5-3 win against Philadelphia in which Mapp had played a pivotal role.
Last week’s 2-2 draw in Vancouver against the Whitecaps, which crowned the Impact as Canadian champions, and an even more impressive come-from-behind win on the road to Sporting Kansas City, which put the Impact in sole possession of first place in the MLS Eastern conference, further underlined the progress that Montreal has made under Schällibaum.
"Last year, this never, ever, ever would have been a win," Bernier said following the game against KC.
As Perkins argued, Schällibaum is also benefitting from showing trust in and making use of all the players on his roster.
“I think you see from the guys on the field and off the field that we fight for him,” Perkins said. “Almost every player on the squad has seen minutes, whether it be the Canadian Championship or in the league, and so the squad rotation is there and I think that’s huge for the camaraderie, so that every player feels a part of this team”.
The squad rotation is also part of Schällibaum’s tactical mantra: the “need to be flexible.” He doesn’t like to rely on eleven players or on one particular formation -- every game is approached in a different way. Schällibaum’s ability to get the Impact to adapt to opponents has been one of the team’s biggest strengths this season. Last year, a lack of tactical alternatives was the team's Achilles heel.
On top of everything Schällibaum has managed to help improve so far this season, the Impact have also become very enjoyable to watch, sometimes scoring goals almost for fun.
But don’t expect the Swiss Volcano to take any credit for it.
“I didn’t come here to be the Messiah,” he said. “I know what I can do, but I’m also ready to learn -- that’s very important.”