Noel Butler, TSN.CA

Noel Butler
MONTREAL IMPACT has asked the soccer experts what fans can expect from Canada's MLS franchises in 2012. Coverage continues today with a look at the Montreal Impact by TSN Radio 990's Noel Butler. Will Montreal avoid the disappointments that befell their Canadian counterparts in Toronto and Vancouver? Read on for Noel's take and be sure to check out Gareth Wheeler's Toronto FC preview and Luke Wileman's look at the Vancouver Whitecaps. Check back in tomorrow for Jason deVos' look at Canadians in the MLS.

The Montreal Impact signed off from second division soccer last fall having won three play-off championships and five regular season championships. On a number of significant levels both on and off the pitch, by Impact standards the 2011 NASL season is not one that will be fondly remembered by club and fans alike. Love them or loathe them through the course of their 20 years in existence the Montreal Impact have provided some of the greatest headlines and storylines in the history of professional club soccer in Canada.

On Saturday at Bell Pitch Downtown the club will embark on its next chapter.

The man chosen to lead them into MLS is Jesse Marsch, a pioneer from the league’s 1996 debut season. Through a 14-year playing career the native of Wisconsin tallied three MLS Cups.  Marsch certainly knows his way around the MLS pitch and is well placed to navigate the club through convoluted landscape of the league. Coming to the Impact after being part of Bob Bradley’s reign at the U.S. national team, the main rub on Marsch is his rookie status as a Head Coach.

Marsch developed a single-minded focus whilst assembling his 28-man squad. Going into last November’s Expansion Draft he compared the experience of putting together the squad was akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. This one has included misplacing a significant piece: Brian Ching.

A certain school of MLS thought believes the motivation behind that selection was to engineer a trade for Andre Hainault, a local lad who still resides in the Montreal area in the off-season. If that’s the case the club came up shorthanded when dealing a very reluctant Ching back to the bosom of Houston in mid February for a conditional pick in the 2013 SuperDraft. Which begs the question… is there an option on Hainault when his current contract expires?

Although most MLS clubs would fear hiring a rookie coach, no club in North American soccer history has had greater success with rookie head coaches than the Impact. Valerio Gazzola, Nick de Santis and Marc dos Santos were all in their rookie seasons when winning their respective playoff championships in 1994, 1999 and 2004.

Montreal was not buying into the theory that your head coach must come resplendent with an MLS head coaching pedigree. One only has to look back to the league’s inaugural 1996 season for reasons why. That season, Marsch’s D.C. United ran out 3-2 winners over New England in the MLS Cup and then-D.C. coach Bruce Arena didn’t have any MLS experience at the time. Over to you, Mr. Marsch.

Making an Impact: a look at how the 2012 Impact roster was assembled.

NASL Players Signed to MLS deals: G Greg Sutton, G Evan Bush, D/M Hassoun Camara, M Sinisa Ubiparipovic, F Miguel Montaño, F Eduardo Sebrango.

Expansion Draft Selections: D Jeb Brovsky, D Josh Gardner, D Zarek Valentin, M Justin Mapp, M Sanna Nyassi, M Collen Warner.

Acquired via Trade: G Donovan Ricketts (LA), D Gienir García (VAN), D Tyson Wahl (SEA), M Davy Arnaud (KC), M Lamar Neagle (SEA), F Justin Braun (CHV), F Mike Fucito (SEA).

Free Agents: D Matteo Ferrari, D Nelson Rivas, D Shavar Thomas, M Bryan Arguez, M Patrice Bernier, M Felipe Martins, .

SuperDraft: D Andrew Wenger (1-1), M Callum Mallace (2-20).

Goal: Greg Sutton, Evan Bush
Defence: Jeb Brovsky, Hassoun Camara, Gienir
García, Calum Mallace, Nelson Rivas, Shavar Thomas
Midfield: Bryan Arguez, Lamar Neagle,
Sanna Nyassi, Sinisa Ubiparipovic
Forwards: Evan James, Miguel Montaño,
Eduardo Sebrango, Collen Warner

Plan of Attack: Montreal sports fans are not known to be the most patient of types but for Major League Soccer a proper sense of perspective is required. League history suggests bucket-loads of patience will be the pre-requisite for the league’s 19th franchise. Impact president Joey Saputo has been advocating as much ever since the club secured its spot in the league back in May 2010. In MLS history only Seattle (in 2009) has secured a spot in the playoffs during their debut season.

Looking long-term, players like 20-year old Zarek Valentin, now a mainstay of the U.S. under-23 squad and his childhood friend the 21-year old Andrew Wenger - the club have 2 players who could well go on to appear in multiple All-Star games.

For this season though numerous question marks still remain. Who are the players who will lead the attack? Let alone create the space and opportunity for them to function in. It’s no secret the Impact has been very active and openly honest in their numerous attempts to secure the services of a globally renowned goal scorer. World Cup and European Champions have been approached but up to now all have rejected the overtures.

What the Impact may lack in the goal scoring charts they’ve certainly made up for in the defensive ranks. To their credit they have assembled a back line that runs deep enough essential cover exists in all positions. Even in the defensive midfielder stakes. They say football matches are often won in the midfield trenches.

A pragmatic approach and attitude will likely prevail. Especially so when you have the likes of a Patrice Bernier at your disposal and who would certainly get my vote when later in the week the club announce their club captain. And yes Bernier’s perfectly bi-lingual. Softly spoken, charming too but a fierce footballer first.

On defence, ex-Azzurri member Matteo Ferrari who was signed by the club on MLS’s roster compliance deadline day Mar. 1. Ferrari’s experience of playing the sport at the highest echelons including the UEFA Champions League at the club level and as a member of the Italian squad at Euro 2004 will serve him and his fellow players well as they face down doubts and stretches of adversity. Then there’s the boost heard around this crazed soccer city when in late February a 38-years very young Eddie Sebrango with a smile as large as any wide open goal mouth put pen to paper on an MLS contract. How fitting it is the native son of Havana will wear the number 12 jersey. No club in MLS could want for a more fitting 12th man.

Home and Away: Two players for Impact fans to watch this season - one home grown and one imported from overseas.

He began his professional career in the blue shirt of the Impact in the now defunct A-League 12 years ago. Now at a prime football age of 32, Patrice Bernier will likely end it with his hometown club. Pursued by the Impact for considerable time, including last summer’s now-infamous media disclosures and exchanges. Then following a trip by Jesse Marsch to Cophenhagen last fall to watch Bernier turnout for his then-league club Lyngby in the Danish Superliga the club finally announced Bernier to a packed media throng assembled at the club’s downtown offices on December 19th. A stalwart of almost a decade of European club football Bernier is likely to play a pivotal role for the national team during this spring’s cycle of World Cup Qualifiers. Stamina, one of the key ingredients for the Brossard, Quebec-native will certainly put him in good stead for the sometimes unedifying rigors of MLS. Always towards the bottom of the club scoring charts watch for Bernier to pop up for the odd goal at critical times – a true hallmark of a player with natural leadership qualities.

Only joining the club on Valentine’s Day in time to join up with the Impact’s California-based training camp and signed on MLS roster compliance deadline day Mar. 1, once Matteo Ferrrari finds his MLS legs the Algerian-born Italian international will become the nucleus of the 19th franchise’s defensive corps. Having started his club career within the rarified youth ranks of Internazionale, following a few loan spells he was signed by Parma in 2002. His market value soared to the 8 figure ranks by the time AS Roma came calling back in 2004. Ferrari knows full well what’s expected of him in an Impact uniform. He’ll have to immediately impose himself and his style on his opponents. Playing international football under the legendry sage and current Irish manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, Ferrari won’t lack in the craft and cunning stakes. Low risk, rewarded with a 2-year contact it's obvious upper management have complete confidence in their Ferrari. So should the fans.

Patrice Bernier Home and Away Matteo Ferrari




Supporters' Shield: Which Impact player is destined to become a fan-favourite in 2012?

If social media is a true barometer for what it takes to ingratiate and integrate yourself within the hearts and minds of your supporters, then the debate for Impact Supporters Player of the Year is already over. The winner has to be communications major Zarek Valentin. If Valentin continues along his current career trajectory which has seen him represent his nation at all levels since under-15 and now having risen by age 19 to the ranks of the U.S. Under-23 squad then one of the biggest battles the Impact may well face in the seasons to come will be to keep Valentin satisfied with his MLS lot. Taken second in last fall’s Expansion Draft, Valentin appeared in 25 matches last season with Chivas USA, starting in 24 of them. Playing this season alongside experienced footballers like Matteo Ferrari and Nelson Rivas can only help refine and enhance Valentin’s maturing game. Don’t for one moment mistake his cheeky grin as a sign of a lack of desire. Lurking directly underneath is a fiercely competitive player always itching to get out on his field of play.

Strength of Schedule: The Impact have a tremendous opportunity to start the season on a winning note. Opening in Vancouver, the team could give the Whitecaps the same treatment they gave Toronto FC last season with an upset victory in its inaugural game. The rest of March could prove tricky, however, with tests against playoff teams like New York and Columbus after the team hosts Chicago in its home opener on St. Patrick's Day. If the team thrives at Saputo Stadium it could be a great summer in La Belle Province. Of the 10 games scheduled for the team in July and August, a mere three are on the road.

Canadian Match-Ups

Saturday, March 10 @ Vancouver
Saturday, April 7 vs. Toronto
Wednesday, June 27 vs. Toronto
Saturday, October 20 @ Toronto

Photos courtesy of The Montreal Impact.


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