Learning French and making an Impact in Montreal

Once in a while, when talking to reporters, Jesse Marsch tosses

off a phrase or two in French.

The Montreal Impact coach is not fluent in the language spoken

by a majority of the Major League Soccer club’s fans, but he works

twice a week with a tutor and seems to be making progress.

”I can read it and understand it really well, and now I just

have to work on speaking,” said Marsch, who is from Racine,


When Marsch was hired to be the MLS club’s coach last August, a

few questions were raised about why the Impact didn’t bring in a

French-speaking coach. It is not as if French-speaking countries

like France or Belgium haven’t produced top coaches.

But it was nothing compared to the controversy that surrounded

Randy Cunneyworth’s promotion to head coach of the Montreal

Canadiens last season. The Toronto native, who succeeded Jacques

Martin in midseason, was the NHL team’s first non-French-speaking

coach in four decades.

The cries of protest even reached the Quebec Legislature and

were so intense that team owner Geoff Molson apologized to fans and

promised the next coach would be bilingual. At season’s end,

Cunneyworth was demoted to assistant coach and the search for a new

head coach began.

”I thought that was a little unfair because (Cunneyworth) was

just trying to do the best job he can,” Marsch said. ”But I

understand what that team means to this community and how its

community takes pride in the uniqueness of it.

”That’s why I’ve tried to speak French at different times and

learn it better. And whatever we do as a team I’m always trying to

honor who we are as a club and who the city is.”

Impact President Joey Saputo and his staff felt it was best to

build a team with a coach who knew MLS inside out, and that was

Marsch. He had a long playing career in North America’s top league

and was working as an assistant on the U.S. national team when he

was hired.

It has worked so far. The team recovered from a slow start to

post a better-than-expected 3-5-2 record, including wins in its

last two league matches. Only 10,000 tickets remain to be sold for

a game Saturday night against David Beckham and the L.A Galaxy at

60,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

Several of Marsch’s players also have been picking up some

French, including Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins, who Tweeted

that he will begin taking classes this week.

It’s a logical first step for most of the players on the

expansion team who have been brought in from around the world to a

city most knew little about.

The team’s 28 players list birthplaces in 13 countries. Only two

have French as their first language: midfielder Patrice Bernier of

Brossard, Quebec, and defender Hassoun Camara of France.

There are more Italian speakers, including former Italy

internationals Bernardo Corradi and Matteo Ferrari, and Colombian

defender Nelson Rivas, who played for Inter Milan. The designated

player they are chasing, striker Marco Di Viao, is Italian.

”A lot are taking French lessons,” Bernier said. ”Maybe

toward the end of the season some of them will do interviews or

speak in French. But I did tell them that if they start talking

French, I’ll stop talking English to them because I’ve been making

life too easy for them.”

Because soccer is an international game, Bernier says learning

new languages comes with the territory. He knows some Danish from

spending most of his career there.

”The Scandinavian countries are good in English, but if you go

to France, Italy or Spain, they won’t speak to you in English,” he

said. ”You have to learn. You go abroad for the football, but you

also have to come out with some culture from where you went, and

the language.”

That is the approach Impact fullback Jeb Brovsky has taken. He

is from Lakewood, Colo., and often Tweets in French, mostly a

combination of words he has picked up.

”It’s what you make it,” he said. ”If you want to get

involved, learn some French and try new cuisine and stuff, it’s

exciting. The character and history of the city is amazing. I can’t

speak French yet but I’m learning.”