MONTREAL -- Win or bust – that was the message at Tuesday’s press conference for Marco Schällibaum, the newly appointed head coach of the Montreal Impact.
Jesse Marsch led the Impact to a very respectable seventh place finish with the Impact last year in the club’s first season in MLS, but this year, Schällibaum will have to do one better: he will have to make the playoffs. Not doing so will mean that the 50-year-old Swiss native will suffer the same fleeting fate as his American predecessor, which wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to carry out because Schällibaum has only been given a one-year contract anyways.
But pressure is something that Schällibaum, who’s played and coached for over 30 years at the highest level in Switzerland, is very much accustomed to and accepts as being a very normal and even essential part of the business.
“In Switzerland, there was pressure too. You always have to win games,” Schällibaum stated. “When you win, we go for a drink and when you lose I go home alone. That’s life. But you have to have pressure. When there’s pressure you’re motivated to win games and move forward. When you don’t have motivation in life it’s hard to find it”.
Though Schällibaum does have very good credentials, foreign coaches have had extremely little success in MLS. Club president Joey Saputo told reporters during the press conference that he’s well aware of this inauspicious statistic, but claims far too much is made of it.
“I think that statistic is overrated,” said Saputo. “More and more you’re going to start seeing some coaches from the outside come to MLS. Toronto announced one today. New York is probably going to announce one coming up. So at the end of the day, do you want fresh blood coming into the league or do you want the same coaches that are rotating within the league?
“It’s a challenge – we understand that; we understand that the success has not been there and hopefully we can turn it around and be the positive story in all that. I don’t look at it from a standpoint of it’s a non-American coach or a non-Canadian coach and it’s not going to do well. It’s like Marco said, ‘soccer is soccer’ and I think it’s important for us to move forward that way.”
The U.S. national team is beginning to thrive as a result of many of its players being able to ply their trade in the best leagues in Europe, and MLS needs more knowledgeable and experienced European coaches to really begin to prosper as well.
There is a tendency to equate opting for a European coach as being snobby – that may at times be true – but surely one would need to be substantially more conceited to think that North American soccer doesn’t need European coaches, or is too good for them. The worst thing MLS could do is close its borders to new ideas from the outside, as the Spanish did for most of the 20th century – now they’re dominating the sport.
Still, Schällibaum will need to have a strong “entourage” of staff and personnel that can aid him in the process of learning about MLS’ unique differences. In that respect, it’s a pity that none of Mike Sorber or Dennis Hamlett, who were assistants under Marsch last year and had stayed on after he left the club, have been confirmed for the Impact’s coaching staff. The Impact have not officially stated that Sorber and Hamlett have left the club, but given that the Impact announced during Tuesday’s press conference that former Under-21 coach Philippe Eullaffroy and Mauro Biello will be the assistants this year, Sorber and Hamlett’s departures appear likely.
Eullaffroy’s ascension to the first team – a very deserving one for his excellent work with the U-21 side – means that changes have been made to the Academy teams’ coaching staffs. Wilfried Nancy, who coached the U-18s, will now coach the U-21 side, Jason Di Tullio, who coached the U-16s, will now coach the U-18s, Simon Gatti will coach the U-16s, former U-21 assistant coach Nicolas Gagnon will coach the U-14s and Antoine Guldner will remain coach of the U-13s.
The Impact also wanted a head coach who would be able to help develop its assistant and academy coaches so as to help strengthen the overall fabric of the club. Schällibaum’s expertise in the theory of the methodology of soccer coaching and his experience in the last year-and-a-half as a FIFA coaching instructor in several Asian countries made him an ideal candidate.
But one troubling question is whether will Schällibaum have enough time.
He only has a year. And it looks like the only way he’s going to get an extension is by immediately making the playoffs. Will he have enough time to implement his style and have a lasting influence on the club?
And is the current squad even good enough to make the playoffs in the first place? He will probably need another two quality signings. Hopefully midfielder Andrea Pisanu, the only signing so far this offseason, is able to stay healthy.
At least, Schällibaum doesn’t have to come in and revolutionize the side: he just needs to focus on getting the best out of the players already present. The fact that he already knows Felipe and Dennis Iapichino from having coached them at Lugano during the 2010-11 is beneficial. But getting the respect and trust from his veteran players - what Marsch failed to do - will certainly be crucial to his success.
Schällibaum’s appointment is both very promising and riddled with challenges. The only real certainty is that, with the upper management's very high expectations, he will have to win and win quickly.