Inside MLS season preview: Montréal Impact
Last year in a nutshell: A rampant start pushed the Impact to the top of the Eastern Conference and secured the Canadian Championship, but those strenuous efforts and a heavy dose of aging legs eventually led to a second-half dip and an ugly playoff demise.
(as of February 27)
Incoming: COACH: Frank Klopas (Chicago); DF: Eric Miller (Creighton); FW: Santiago González (Sud América/Uruguay)
Outgoing: COACH: Marco Schällibaum (unattached); DF: Alessandro Nesta (retired – technical consultant with Impact), Zarek Valentin (FK Bodø/Glimt/Norway); MF: Davy Arnaud (D.C. United), Paolo DelPiccolo (New England), Maximiliano Rodriguez (Argentinos Juniors/Argentina), Sinisa Ubiparipovic (Ottawa Fury)
Evergreen striker Marco Di Vaio must score in bunches again to give the Impact hope of another postseason berth.
Key Player: MLS MVP finalist Marco Di Vaio carried the Impact to the playoffs through sheer force of will. The former Italian international displayed his enduring class with a 20-goal haul despite relatively scant support as the season progressed. His persistent and timely runs through the opposing line always posed a danger to the opposition. He flirted with retirement at the end of last season, but his decision to return ensures the Impact can point to at least one genuine goalscorer within their ranks.
Strengths: Di Vaio's penchant for popping up at the right time offers a sharpness few teams can match. His clever movement allows a group of talented midfielders – Felipe is the pick of the creative lot, while Hernán Bernardello and newly appointed captain Patrice Bernier supply a capable and efficient grounding – to stretch the defense vertically and then use the space created underneath to scour for further openings. This group is technical on the whole and keeps the ball fairly well, but it also boasts the flexibility to sit deeply and wait for the counter, too. Bernardello and Bernier distribute neatly from deep-lying areas to facilitate the work in transition. They also plug space particularly well when the ball turns over, a key component for this team to protect against the counter. Steady goalkeeper Troy Perkins is probably the pick of the defensive lot at the moment with Alessandro Nesta now retired.
Weaknesses: Most of the problems brutally exposed last season are still present after a surprisingly quiet winter at Stade Saputo. Nesta's retirement removes the most reliable figure from one of the league's poorer defenses (no playoff team conceded more often). The personnel in place – particularly if former Deportivo and Wigan defender Adrian López takes a while to recapture his form after suffering a torn right ACL in September – offers little hope of a resurgence. The defensive frailties are hindered by a lack of mobility in central midfield. Bernardello and Bernier cover the right areas much of the time, but they lack the dexterity to cope with more active playmakers. Inconsistent wide play sometimes leaves the center of the park a bit too congested, though the options and the performances did improve last season. There are no alternatives to Di Vaio up front. If he isn't available for any stretch of time or he isn't scoring frequently, the the Impact are likely sunk.
Matteo Ferrari wondered why the Impact did not invest in the squad during the close season. He must cover any potential defensive cracks with his performances this season.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● How will the defense sort itself out?: New boss Frank Klopas faces a daunting task to mold a capable back four out of the pieces at his disposal. His options at fullback – Jeb Brovsky and Hassoun Camara on either side, plus the looming presence of trialist Heath Pearce on the left and U.S. under-20 international Eric Miller on the right – are solid enough. The choices in the middle leave a bit to be desired, though. Ferrari accumulated too many bookings last season (eight) and fell short of the standard his pedigree would suggest. And the former Italian international is the consensus top selection in the department with Camara more often deployed at fullback, Wandrille Lefèvre still unproven at this level, López still recovering, Pearce still waiting for a deal and Nelson Rivas perpetually crocked.
● Is there a second option if Di Vaio isn't firing?: The veteran Italian striker scored 40 percent of the Impact's league goals last season. Felipe finished second in the team's golden boot race with just five goals. Di Vaio will score his fair share again, but he needs more help this season. Other players – including Felipe, a player capable of exerting control over matches more consistently than he did last season – must rise to the occasion more often. Expect the Impact to consider a meaningful foray into the transfer market during the summer to reinforce this department, too.
● Will the legs hold up for the entire season?: Montréal buckled under the weight of a hectic fixture list last year with Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League duties exacting a significant toll. This particular group – thin in most spots and aging in a few areas, too – must pace itself carefully in order to place itself in a better position for the final third of the season this time around. Unless the Impact can muster another stirring start, the margin for error simply won't exist this time around.
Best case scenario: Klopas fashions a compact, counterattacking unit designed to sit deeply, string passes together quickly through midfield and trust Di Vaio's ability to nick enough goals to win games. The tactics work in large part with the defense holding firmer than expected, Felipe providing a constant menace through midfield and Di Vaio thumping home goals at his 2013 rate. All of those measures yield a second consecutive Canadian Championship title and another playoff berth.
Worst case scenario: The pervasive issues in defense prove the Impact's downfall. Individual mistakes undermine the efforts to build a cohesive back four. Opposing teams move too fluidly and too quickly through midfield. Felipe floats in and out of matches as he did last season. Di Vaio shows his age and waits in vain for further support or a useful forward signing during the summer. The season ends without a playoff berth and with the prospect of widespread changes to the squad firmly on the table.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS
MARCH 3: New York Red Bulls – Philadelphia Union
MARCH 4: Portland Timbers – Real Salt Lake
MARCH 5: San Jose Earthquakes – Seattle Sounders – Sporting Kansas City
MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps