MONTREAL - Even if the MLS SuperDraft doesn’t brim with talent as do drafts of other North American sports, it’s a process that the Montreal Impact took very seriously when it came around last January.
After choosing Andrew Wenger with the first pick of the draft, Impact coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Nick De Santis were very surprised to find that midfielder Calum Mallace – pegged by the Impact as the 11th best player in the draft - was still available for the club’s second and 20th overall pick.
Marsch and De Santis didn’t need a second to think about it and immediately selected the Scottish native.
Having coached Mallace during his time at Marquette University, and fully aware of his abilities, Louis Bennett was equally surprised that his former player was chosen as late as he was.
“Montreal had a great draft – goodness me, a Generation Adidas player like [Wenger] and Mallace? I was hugely surprised,” Bennett told MLSsoccer.com at the time. “I believe there were a couple of teams that were very disappointed they didn’t get [Mallace]. Athletically, he’s a good specimen, especially as a transitional midfield player.
"He’s got good skills on the ball and a no-nonsense attitude. When he needs to knock people around, he knocks people around.”
But just like it took time for Mallace to be picked in the MLS SuperDraft, it’s also taken time for the 22-year-old to get selected in the Impact’s first team starting 11 this season.
With only two games remaining, Mallace’s start in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo was just his second, and it was also the first time he got to play 90 minutes. But more than being able to play the entirety of the match, what was most pleasing for Mallace was being able to play in his preferred midfield role.
“Ninety minutes with the first team is a little bit different than 90 in a reserve [game] so I was feeling my legs a little bit, but overall I was happy with my performance in the first game in the middle,” Mallace told reporters in training this week.
“I talked to a few different people and from the very first minute I just felt a lot more comfortable in the middle, and some people said they could see that as well from my performance. I grew up playing in the middle and that’s where I prefer to play, so getting the opportunity in there was great.”
Midfield veteran Patrice Bernier played alongside Mallace in the center of midfield and told MLSsoccer.com following the match that his counterpart’s inexperience made it so that he was caught in the wrong place on the field at times, but that, on the whole, he exhibited some quality play.
“Being older, I had to manage the middle more because he hadn’t played a lot, but he showed good things in a difficult game that we had to win,” Bernier stated. "He did particularly well in the first half, when we enjoyed a bit more control”.
Mallace's first start was against D.C. United in June, where the Impact lost 3-0. He was stuck playing at right fullback, a position he had never played before, and he made lots of mistakes as a result.
Marsch explained to the media on Wednesday that it was difficult for Mallace to not play with the first team during the year and then recover from that negative performance against D.C. But Marsch insisted that he’s been able to do just that.
“He was disappointed with how D.C. went back in July, but he responded in a really good way,” said Marsch. “In training he’s been getting better and better every day. He’s been doing very well in the reserve matches so when he shows up in the lineup, I think everybody on the team says, 'yeah that’s right, let’s get him in the game.'
"And certainly the way he went out and competed and played [against Houston], he showed that he’s moved himself along and that he’s ready for that challenge.”
Now that Mallace has demonstrated his ability and potential, he hopes that he’ll be making his next entrance sooner rather than later, though by now he’s used to waiting.
“I take my performance, analyze it the way I want to and come to practice the next day and try and put the work into training and hopefully get the start next game,” Mallace concluded. “If not, [I] just [have] to keep working; [I've] just got to go [one] day at a time in training.”
Nick Sabetti covers the Montreal Impact for Goal.com Canada.