Montreal is off to a perfect 3-0-0 start in MLS, but now that it has to make do without its best defender, the club's depth and true colors with be on display.
If the Montreal Impact are sitting atop the Eastern Conference after three games into the new MLS season, it is in large part due to its excellent defensive showings thus far.
The Impact’s back four of Jeb Brovsky, Matteo Ferrari, Alessandro Nesta and Hassoun Camara, along with Troy Perkins in goal, may very well be the league’s finest defensive cast. And yet, though the quality of the Impact’s backline can’t be disputed, the physical state of aging veterans such as Nesta and Ferrari and their lack of durability are nagging concerns: How long can they last before picking up an injury?
Well, apparently not very long, as Nesta already picked up his first against Toronto FC last Saturday. The 37-year-old was forced to leave the game early due to an adductor strain and will be out for at least two weeks as a result.
Nesta’s injury forced a defensive reshuffle for head coach Marco Schällibaum, as Camara slotted in at center back, Brovsky moved from left to right fullback, and Dennis Iapichino was subbed in at left fullback. The resulting back four still managed, although only just, to get through the game and hold on for a 2-1 win, but it did at times look uneasy in doing so.
In the press conference following the match, questions over the Impact’s defensive depth were posed to Schällibaum, and the Swiss native insisted that he wasn’t at all concerned about Nesta’s absence and that he was very comfortable with the alternatives at his disposal.
“We have other solutions. We have enough quality to make up for [Nesta’s] absence. It’s not a problem, believe me,” Schällibaum retorted, visibly irritated by the line of questioning.
Camara will likely take Nesta’s place again for Saturday's home fixture against the New York Red Bulls, whereas Schallibaum’s only other centre back, homegrown player Karl Ouimette, will likely feature in Sunday’s reserve game against the Red Bulls' reserve team.
With Nelson Rivas also out injured, Schällibaum really can’t afford to lose another one of his central defenders anytime soon.
Camara moving to center back will also mean changes at fullback, where Iapichino is expected to start on the left hand side and Brovsky on the right. The fullback position isn’t, however, a concern for Schällibaum, as it is one where the Impact possess a wealth of options, so much so, that Zarek Valentin, who was one of the Impact’s better performers last year, hasn’t even dressed for a game yet this season.
The Impact’s impressive defensive record does have a lot to do with the team’s change in mentality under Schällibaum. They’re certainly a lot better organized than they were in 2012, as they’ve rarely ever given away dangerous counter attacking opportunities and they’ve been flawless when defending set pieces, which was their Achilles' heel last year.
But still, losing a player of Nesta’s experience and talent won’t be easy, and Camara hasn’t always looked very comfortable playing at center back, a position that he’s still getting accustomed to.
The Impact have gotten their season off to a brilliant start, but how they cope in the next few weeks will say a lot more about how good the team really is.