East-leading Impact are keeping their feet on the ground as the second half of the MLS season promises to be more difficult than the first.
The Montreal Impact have surprised many with their exploits so far in MLS, but they’ve also surprised themselves.
There was a sense in the lead-up to their sophomore season that the Impact could fare better than last year and make a genuine push for the playoffs, but no one at the club really expected the team to be leading the Eastern Conference at the half-way point of the campaign.
“We did feel that the team was going to be very competitive and that we had enough experience, quality and youth to put everything together," Montreal sporting director Nick De Santis told TSN 690. "There were signs with training camp and the Disney Classic that the Impact would have a positive season, but we didn’t think we would be sitting in first half-way through the season.”
The biggest unknown was what kind of impact new coach Marco Schällibaum would have on the team when he took over the reigns in January. Could he build off the foundation Jesse Marsch had built last season and adapt quickly to MLS? Could he unite a divided locker room and earn the respect of the senior players in the side?
So far, he’s done all that and more. Not only are the Impact first in the East, but they’ve also played some of the more enjoyable soccer in MLS this year, especially at home - though given the product on the field, you have to wonder why Saputo Stadium has yet to be sold out this season.
The key for Schällibaum was kicking the season off in a positive manner, which wouldn’t be an easy task considering the schedule early on. Starting with two games on the road in Seattle and Portland could have very easily amounted to two losses and yet the Impact managed to come out of Cascadia with two wins, which was just as many wins as they were able to muster in the entire expansion season last year.
Montreal was already a strong side at home, but getting the results away from home was was an area the Impact needed to improve in order to make the playoffs.
But it was really during the team’s postseason training camp in Italy in November of last year where the team’s mentality on the road began to change for the better as the Impact impressively held on to a 1-0 win against Serie A side Fiorentina at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence.
“We’re a good team,” midfielder Patrice Bernier told Goal following the game. “Tonight shows that we can go on the road and play with anybody, even in Europe."
If the wins in Seattle and Portland seemed fortunate, the 2-2 draw against Vancouver to seal the Canadian Championship and the 2-1 come-from-behind win in Kansas City three days later confirmed that the Impact had become a veritable force in the league.
Montreal now finds itself in its most difficult phase of the season. The Impact had a great opportunity to run away in first place with seemingly winnable games against Colorado, Toronto and Chivas last week, but only managed two points. It was perhaps a sign that the second half of the season won’t be as merry as the first, or at least, will prove more testing, especially as other teams look to knock the Impact off the top of the mountain.
“The games get more difficult when you are in first place. Every team that comes in is playing against a first place team and there’s a different mentality with that,” De Santis explained. “If we can keep doing well at home and sneak out points on the road, I think we’re in a very good position to achieve our goal and make the playoffs."
As the games now become more difficult, the Impact’s depth will be put to the test, especially as the Champions League group stage commences in August, but given the lack of movement in the transfer window, the Impact appear to be pretty comfortable with the current roster.
Though the Impact find themselves in a much better position than they thought they’d be and there is a sense of confidence and optimism about them, they’re trying not to get too carried away with what they’ve been able to accomplish so far.
“I don’t look at things today and say we’re way far ahead of everyone, but at the same time I don’t think there’s anyone that’s much better than us,” De Santis said. “We’re a competitive team; we’re going to compete every game.
"We’ve struggled through some games, but there have been others where we won because we were the better team.”