One wouldn’t have known that the Montreal Impact’s win over Sporting Kansas City last Sunday was just a preseason friendly by the way Marco Schällibaum and Nick De Santis celebrated when the referee blew the final whistle -- they clenched their fists and shouted snappily in triumph as if three vital points had been on the line.
With the Impact wanting to get off to a good start in what is a tough early schedule that includes games in MLS hotbeds Seattle and Portland, winning games in preseason is fundamental; it's good for morale and adds weight and appeal to what Schällibaum is trying to implement in training.
On Wednesday, Montreal won its second preseason game 4-1 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL, and Schällibaum, who has now seen all of his players in action, told reporters following the game that he was pleased with what the team has shown so far and the chemistry that’s being developed.
But what has become most apparent from the first two outings is that the Impact have a lot more depth in different positions compared to last year.
The challenge, however, will be deciding who starts.
Who partners Patrice Bernier in midfield?
Before heading down to Florida, Bernier told the Montreal media that having this added competition would be very healthy for the team, even if some starting positions are already set in stone - for example, Troy Perkins will definitely be the starting goalkeeper this season; Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari will start at center back; Dennis Iapichino and Zarek Valentin will likely get the nods at left and right fullback and Marco Di Vaio and Felipe will spearhead the team’s offense.
Bernier was probably thinking about himself as well when he made that statement, for the Montreal native and the Impact’s MVP in 2012 is, without a doubt, irreplaceable
But the real question is who will play alongside him?
For most of last year, it was Collen Warner who played with Bernier, but when Calum Mallace finally got his chance towards the end, he played extremely well. Warner and Mallace are similar in that they both have excellent work rate, but Warner is a bit quicker and sharper in possession and, being more experienced, also has a better overall positional sense. Mallace is, however, a bit more technical and will look for the vertical ball down field.
Another new alternative in midfield is Hassoun Camara. Camara a natural defensive midfielder, but played at fullback and center back in the Impact’s expansion year. Having started in midfield against Kansas City on the weekend, it seems as though Camara could get a chance to play there, though he’ll probably be needed at center back at some point or another. Camara’s range of passing isn’t great, but he would be able protect the back four. Perhaps he would be better suited to a shutdown role late in games, rather than a starting one.
Academy player Wandrille Lefevre is another option. Having ended his time with the academy, this will probably be his last shot at a contract with the first team. Schällibaum has spoken well of Lefevre, and has emphasized that he’s physically ready to play in MLS. Whether he’s good enough is another question, but he has given a very good account of himself in preseason so far.
Between Warner, Mallace, Camara and Lefevre, there really isn’t a clear-cut standout player. Warner is probably the favorite to start, given his comfort level with Bernier, but it will be interesting to see what Schällibaum decides and how things progress over the course of the season.
Who starts on the outside of midfield?
A priority for the Impact in January was improving the wide midfield positions, and that’s exactly what De Santis did with the additions of Andrea Pisanu, Blake Smith and Andrés Romero. But, it almost feels like he overdid it. With Davy Arnaud, Justin Mapp and Sanna Nyassi already in the roster, the Impact now have six wingers fighting for only two starting positions. Competition is important, sure, but too much of it can become a problem. Keeping all six happy will be a big challenge, even for someone as experienced in man management as Schällibaum.
It’s true that Romero and Nyassi can also play up front, especially when the Impact decide to switch to a 4-4-2 formation, but, that probably won’t happen very often.
As Pisanu, Smith and Romero take some time to acclimate, Mapp and Arnaud will probably be Schällibaum’s first choices when the season starts.
But in all likelihood, Pisanu, who has already shown some excellent chemistry with Di Vaio, will begin to replace Arnaud, and having a captain on the bench would create an awkward situation.
With Smith and Romero already showing promise, Schällibaum is going to have some tough decisions to make. All six players remaining for the entirety of the season is unlikely, so there should eventually be a trade or two.