MLS

Wileman: Impact making a statement one game at a time

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Luke Wileman
3/18/2013 12:40:53 PM
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If you take a look at the Eastern Conference standings three weeks into the new Major League Soccer season, there's one team that stands out above the rest.
 
With three wins from three, Montreal Impact sits three points clear at the top; the only team in the conference that is yet to lose a game. In fact, if you glance across at the West the Vancouver Whitecaps are the only other team in the league with a 100 per cent record, and they've played a game less.
 
Montreal's start to the season has been impressive and unexpected, but there is also sense of realism around the Impact camp that is good to see. Rather than basking in the glory of their early season record, they are focusing on the task that lies ahead.
 
When I met Montreal's new head coach Marco Schallibaum ahead of training at Olympic Stadium on Friday morning, I congratulated him on his team's excellent start to the season. Winning back-to-back games in the Pacific North-west to kick off the year was a fantastic achievement but the Swiss coach wasn't interested in the plaudits.
"We've done nothing yet," he said to me. "Congratulate me at the end of the season if we are in the playoffs."
 
I continued the conversation with Schallibaum later in the day when he explained the importance of staying grounded. He said it would have been easy for the players to return home from their road trip and get carried away with all of the accolades. Schallibaum himself experienced it at a Montreal Canadiens game earlier in the week. Everyone was approaching him at the Bell Centre to offer praise for his team's achievements. He was well aware the same thing was happening to the players in the city throughout the week, and was determined to make sure that didn't get into their heads and cloud their judgment.
 
Schallibaum's worries can be put to one side because his players appear single-minded in their approach. The following day in the locker room following a workmanlike victory over Toronto FC, the Impact players spoke of their disappointment at the performance, recognizing there is still much improvement needed before the team is where it wants to be. The fact is, the Impact have been getting the job done while leaving plenty of room to get better.
 
In the first two road games, it was about discipline, organization and making the most of chances when they come along. At home on Saturday, it was more of the same, but Schallibaum wanted to see better quality in possession from his team. In actual fact, it was a relatively comfortable afternoon for the Impact against a Toronto FC side that is still lacking a creative spark as it remodels itself under Ryan Nelsen but as the season progresses, Montreal will need to produce a greater attacking threat as they look to dominate games at home.
 
There's no doubt one of the major benefits for the Impact is the fact the squad didn't undergo major surgery in the offseason. Most if these players were together during the club's inaugural MLS season and have already formed an understanding. That was evident to see on a couple of occasions as Davy Arnaud linked up with Marco Di Vaio to create scoring opportunities, the second of which led to the Italian scoring his team's second goal in first half stoppage time.

It's the same core but with a couple of added pieces and new direction. The addition of Marco Schallibaum as head coach seems to be working. His arrival in Montreal was met with much skepticism around a league that has seen many foreign coaches fail to adapt, but in the early days, the man dubbed "the Swiss Volcano" is doing just fine. He has an excellent support staff around him and has clearly been able to get the players on board. He's an engaging character who has been able to easily slide into a culture unlike any other in North America and immediately become a respected figure.

As Schallibaum will readily point out, this team is nowhere near the finished product but that makes their first three results even more impressive; particularly considering a year ago the Impact managed just to pick up just one point from their first five matches.

For me, the one big question mark surrounding the team is whether their experienced core will be able to last a long grueling season. If they can, this team can be a playoff contender. But that is a big if. Seven of Saturday's starting eleven were over the age of 30, and already we have seen Alessandro Nesta forced off with injury. The Italian World Cup winner lasted just 12 minutes at Olympic Stadium before being substituted with a tight hamstring. As the veteran turns 37 this week, there is a big possibility that he won't be available to play as regularly as the Impact would like.

Whether Nesta is fit to face New York at the Big O on Saturday remains to be seen, but the Impact defence will likely face a sterner test against the Red Bulls. Schallibaum will continue to try and keep things in perspective but as Montreal prepare for their next challenge, they are making a statement within MLS one game at a time.

Impact supporters (Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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