Several weeks of preseason preparations culminate with the payoff of the first week of the season. Coaches and players lay their plans carefully and work within a set of parameters established during training camp. And then the first game passes and everyone understands how much hard work looms ahead over the remaining 33 matches.
Few, if any, teams enter the season in finished form. Blame the calendar or the transfer window or whatever else might suit on that particular day. There are many, many reasons for the phenomenon in this league and others around the world.
For better or for worse, most sides need a little bit of time to find their footing. Some elements may emerge at the first whistle. Fortunate sides develop other traits to push them forward. Laggards either fall apart along the way or struggle to develop the necessary characteristics at any point during the season.
Every so often, a team manages to pull everything together from the first whistle. Sporting Kansas City did it last year. Montréal has done it so far through three games this year.
Credit new coach Marco Schällibaum for establishing a tactical deportment suitable to the players at his disposal. It isn't easy for a recent appointment with little knowledge of MLS – though plenty of intelligence on former charges like Felipe and Dennis Iapichino – to form a unit capable of competing on opening day in Seattle. He managed the task with aplomb and tasked his team with a set of clear directives designed to yield results.
Schallibaum organized his team in a 4-1-4-1 setup and preached prudence from the outset. His personnel helped matters significantly. Not every team can lean on Matteo Ferrari and Alessandro Nesta to form the central defense and use Patrice Bernier as the primary holding player in front of the back four. Those three players form the core of the defensive efforts and provide the necessary grounding to ensure the tactics are followed properly.
The firm defensive base allows the Impact plenty of latitude to exploit teams on the counter at vulnerable moments. Bernier's role as a holder offers cover for Felipe and Davy Arnaud to push onwards through the middle in support of Marco Di Vaio at the proper times. Further support from the wide areas means Montréal can commit five players into the attack when warranted without necessarily disrupting its defensive efforts.
All of the deserved focus on the Impact's rigid shape – the side has conceded just once in three matches – rather ignores the ample technical ability on display. This modest approach only produces results in conjunction with the necessary quality on the break. As several other clubs have shown this season, it isn't easy to produce the sharpness required to construct sweeping moves early in the campaign.
Montréal has produced one neat move in each of its three victories to provide the incisiveness required to buttress its work at the back. Most of the elements are in place – another winger might help matters – to ensure these sequences represent the baseline instead of the product of a good run of form to start the season.
Not every match will involve such tidy work on the break, though. Montréal must find a way to break opposing teams down without scoring on a bicycle kick or waiting for that one instance when Di Vaio darts behind the line without procuring an offside flag. Those circumstances will require more than an even share of possession in home matches against the likes of TFC to engineer a breakthrough.
These operating principles should provide a profitable foundation even if the additional flourishes never arrive. Nesta's withdrawal through injury against TFC flashes a potential warning sign (his nous is critical to the overall effort), but the defensive base remains resolute and the shape works well enough without him.
Difficult times will arrive soon enough. Every MLS season involves dips along the way. But the Impact will hope these first three victories – and the principles used to secure them – signal how the rest of this campaign will unfold.
Five Points – Week 3
1. Finding the right cadence...: New York did just about everything except score a goal against D.C. United on Saturday afternoon. The home side kept the ball well and used the flanks effectively to create ample operating room in the 0-0 draw. All of that work ultimately went for naught for two reasons: (1) the Red Bulls relied a bit too much on service from the flanks with Juninho Pernambucano on the bench at the start and (2) a dearth of sharpness in the final third. Although the Red Bulls could not find a way through United to collect all three points, they can take solace in their display and what it may mean for them in subsequent affairs.
2. ...even if it requires working on the break: Colorado spent far, far less time on the ball than usual in its gritty 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake. This possession-oriented side essentially reversed its usual trend (just 30.4 percent of possession on the day, according to statistics provided by Opta) and watched RSL knock the ball around for much of the affair. Playing for the counter does have its benefits, though. The visitors generated as many shots on goal at Rio Tinto Stadium (six) as they had in their previous two matches combined. Wayward finishing affected those numbers a bit, but the real sticking point comes from Martin Rivero's absence. Without Rivero, the Rapids lack a player capable turning ample possession into incisive chances in the final third. Until he returns, Pareja and his players could lean a little bit more on other strengths – like the speed of Deshorn Brown and others on the break – to carry them through.
3. Talk about a first impression: Seattle forward Obafemi Martins could have skipped Saturday's 1-1 draw with Portland. Instead of biding his time in Spain before linking up with Nigeria on international duty, he opted to fly to the Pacific Northwest to join his new teammates. The former Levante forward even came off the bench for the final 20 minutes. If Martins can add his usual precision in front of goal to his evident commitment, then Sounders FC will have made a rather wise signing indeed.
4. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear on simulation: “I’ve watched this league for three weeks now and it saddens me that we have people who have no problem diving, and looking for fouls and then looking to the heavens,” Kinnear told reporters after mentioning an alleged dive by Kenny Cooper in the first half of FC Dallas' 3-2 win over the Dynamo. “It’s a sickening epidemic that’s going on in our league and hopefully it cancels itself out here pretty soon. Because some teams play hard, some guys cheat. Sometimes the cheaters win. When you have guys that don’t even get looked at, don’t get touched, falling on the ground looking for fouls, it makes me want to throw up.”
5. Chivas USA coach José Luis Sánchez Solá on the meaning of the 1-1 draw with Los Angeles on Sunday: “We earned a point, but in respect we earned 100,” Sánchez Solá told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “In that respect, we were the winning team.”