With the preseason well underway, players back on the pitch and the excitement boiling within, I think I can speak for all of us by saying that we are ready for Montreal Impact’s third MLS season to start. With all the transfers (or lack thereof), the new coaching staff, and the real life drama of "crowning a new captain” did we almost forget about how season two ended? Let me remind you.
The players of Montreal Impact, with hope in the air, made the long trip to Houston for their first playoff match. The Impact players were feeling quite broken and frustrated with the Dynamo up 3-nil and their playoff dreams slipping through their fingers. In the final minutes, Andres Romero kicked at Dynamo’s Kofi Sarkodie, which instigated a battle between Marco Di Vaio and Corey Ashe. What was the result? Both Romero and Di Vaio, red carded and leaving the Impact without their number one striker for the beginning of the 2014 season.
Starting off the 2014 season without Di Vaio has opened up a debate about the strikers. Marco Di Vaio is, without doubt, the man that Montreal build the offense around. From the wise words of Will Ferrell in the movie "Kicking and Screaming", “Pass to the Italian”. With Di Vaio out for the beginning of the season, it has left Impact fans questioning the lack of quality strikers. Romero had a terrible season. We all were thinking it, and I just said it. He had a tough year all around as his season was full of personal distractions. There was a period of time, during off season, in which Romero was put on the inactive list. We were all left wondering if he was going to return and many of us pondering, do we want him to. Romero came back, during preseason with determination and promises that this year will be different. I have hopes for you Romero, that you can be the footballer you have promised to us. Remember, it’s not who we are underneath, but what we do that defines us. Show us what you can do. So with Romero on suspension, hopes lie with Andrew Wenger. I know what you are thinking “uh oh”.
Andrew Wenger had a bloody bad season in 2013. He is faced with some of the toughest criticism, walking in the shadow of the famous Marco Di Vaio. Every moment Wenger had a shot on net, the entire Impact family held their breath. Wenger’s inability to score goals is not from lack of trying. He is consistently taking shots, but where he fails to succeed is how the shots need to go in the back of the net. Wenger shoots wide, Wenger off the post. We know these words are all too familiar. This season, I believe that Wenger will really start to develop. He has the heart, he has the passion, and he never stops trying. With a mentor like Di Vaio by his side, he will be able to utilize Di Vaio’s experience and mold into a top notch striker. In theory, it works, but how Wenger’s season will pan out could be a completely different story.
Speaking of “different story”, despite the entertainment we all received watching Coach Shallibaum explode on the sidelines, Impact has named a new head coach. Frank Klopas. Other than being a dapper Jose Mourinho look alike, he has experience under his belt with not only management, but as a player: 9 seasons in Greece, 1994 World Cup, 1988 Summer Olympics and finishing his career with Chicago Fire in 1999. Klopas went on to be Fire’s technical director in 2008 and was named head coach in 2011. Will Klopas' experience within MLS bring the experience needed to build the team, coach the youngsters, and lead Montreal to the playoffs? He really needs to get to know the players, switch up the starting 11, and make things interesting by playing the youngsters; a youngster such as Blake Smith.
Blake Smith has shown tremendous skill. With just one year in MLS, he has taken our hearts by surprise. I know that Smith will be an incredible player. His heart is in the game, his passion can be felt by fans, and who can forget the famous front flip. It seemed that Smith did not receive enough pitch time last year to really develop his skills. The unforgettable moment when Smith scored his first career MLS goal against Philadelphia Union really shined the light on him. In my opinion, with proper training, more time on the pitch, and the pressure of being the “Newbie” gone, Blake Smith has what it takes to be a star.
Everyone grab your tissues because I am going to mention the most emotional day for me with the Impact. Alessandro Nesta. He was the key to the defence, well, the defence that we had. There where countless times that the defence wasn’t as strong as it should be. The second half was a huge struggle and for our darling Nesta. We could all see it, we all knew it was coming, but nothing could prepare us for the day when Nesta announced his retirement from football. With the lack of signing a solid defenceman, I had questions in the back of my mind to the strength and ability of the defensive line and who would step up and become the next defensive superstar? After the first few matches at the Disney Classic, I was asking myself “What are we feeding Wandrille Lefevre and can we keep it coming?” I really hope so. The passion, dedication, and talent that was portrayed on the pitch the first few matches has me thinking quite positively. If he keeps this up, he will be an absolute asset to the team.
With all these changes, who will be the one to lead the Impact to victory? We said our farewells to Captain Davy Arnaud as we sent him packing to be with former teammate Iapichino at D.C. United. During the 2013 season, Midfielder Patrice Bernier was, quite often, wearing the captains’ band. Bernier has shown incredible leadership skills. He knows how to communicate to the refs without getting “hot headed”. He is one of the most pragmatic players that I have watched. His calm stature on and off the pitch is exactly what the team needs. With the green light after his surgery, I can’t think of a better person for the job. He will be a top-notch influence to the team and will help develop the youngsters into respectable players.
During the off season, Montreal have acquired some new additions to the team: Defender Eric Miller, who is also a Generation Adidas member, midfielder George Malki, forward Pete Caringi and Jordan Onagaro from the MLS Super Draft. Also, with the returning players such as Nelson Rivas and Adrian Lopez there will be tight competition when it comes to the starting 11. Montreal will have the bodies needed to change up the squad and experiment to find out what works best.
This season will be a lot different. With many of the other teams announcing big signings, Montreal Impact remained silent. Although very recently, the third DP slot was filled by Uruguayan forward Santiago Gonzalez. Previously a U16 Impact player, the 21 year-old has been playing for Sud America. Being a young player has its ups and downs. He can really develop into a strong player that Montreal can use in the future. On the other hand, there are a lot of players that are trying to develop. Should the DP slot be used for that as well? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone with more experience? Only an action packed season will tell.
I think this year will be dedicated to development, trying different formations, and changing up the squad until finding what works. Klopas has got to find the right mix for the players that will not only be strong with a typical starting 11, but also be flexible when it comes to injuries. My 2 players to keep an eye on are, like I mentioned, Andrew Wenger and Blake Smith. With some intensive training and development, they could very well be the future of the team. As for Impact’s playoff dreams, I would hope so, but sorry folks, it is not likely. “Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves back up again.” Wise words indeed. Through the good and the bad, we need to be there for our team. This may be a rough season, the roughest yet, but don’t give up hope, stand tall, stand proud, and stand together. Remember, this may be a year to take more risks. If the season is spent finding a niche and developing players it will be more beneficial in the years to come.
(image courtesy of impactmontreal.com)