This week I got the chance to exchange some questions with Sofiane Benzaza of the fantastic Montreal Impact blog Mount Royal Soccer. We swapped 5 or 6 questions this time around so you can find Sofiane's answer here but to see what he asked me you will have to head over to Mount Royal and be sure to leave them some lovely "encouraging" messages.
WTR: The Impact have basically one Canadian player on their roster in Patrice Bernier. I realize that they have met the league minimum of three but the other two are not likely to be major contributors this season. Is the lack of Canadian content something that sits well with Impact fans?
MRS: I wouldn't call it a concern but more of a wish. The biggest wish that first came from fans and media (some of them) was the possibility of the presence of Quebec players in the team, 99% fueled by the availability of Patrice Bernier before his signing in December 2011. The need for Quebecker players is not as as big as in hockey with the Montreal Canadiens but we all know that some members of the media have their agenda ready to pull out the local card. Fans in any market will always want local talent to play, perform and represent the city,state, province,country. I do believe that the Montreal market is filled with highly soccer-educated fans that come from different backgrounds (social, cultural etc..) and understand the value of a player on the field, beyond any language, origin and such. One thing for sure, with Jesse Marsch and his supporting staff, it was expected to see a very US-centric touch to the team with 294 US-born players in the MLS.
The Canadian content debate is very interesting as I think that a big chunk of Canadian talent might probably have to pass by the 3 Canadian MLS clubs that will need to fully integrate in some shape and form the grass roots soccer programs and help out in the process of producing quality soccer players, like the US Development Soccer Academy.
WTR: Impact fans came in to this season with lots of optimism but without a win so far is that optimism starting to fade? Have the expectations changed at all for the team so far?
MRS: The optimism has started to fade with the roller coaster of good solid starts to games, followed by cataclysmic event (obvious exaggeration) and a breakdown in minor details that make the difference between 0 pts and having a chance to get the 3pts. Optimism has not left the fans as the highly soccer-educated Montreal fan is able to see evolution, progress in defeat, hardship in this long road of building a starting XI, a team, a squad, an organization. The expectations of not being too far in the playoffs race by June-July have changed even though the quality of the soccer is still giving hope but a couple of more defeats could kill that vibe.
WTR: There have been questions asked of veteran keeper Ricketts already in the young season but is there any real chance of a change taking place in goal for the team any time soon? They brought along a top NASL keeper in Bush but will the team be giving him a real chance this
MRS: I sincerely believed that Evan Bush's chances to have some MLS starts have slimmed down a lot when Greg Sutton was signed with the team. But I am a believer in squad depth and with 3 quality goalkeepers, the Montreal Impact can only reap the fruits of getting an internal competition going since training camp. As much as Sutton was tagged the #2 goalkeeper during pre-season, Bush can only grow by practicing with experienced MLS goalkeepers under the watchful eye of Preston Burpo, goalkeeper coach. If there are no injuries and/or the team is still in the playoff race, Bush should be seeing more time with the Reserve squad than with the 1st team.
WTR: Let's open it up right now and get our hands dirty right away: is there a Toronto FC - Montreal Impact
rivalry/derby as we speak? Whether it currently exists or not, how will it develop?
MRS: The rivalry does not exist at the MLS level. Only Evan Bush and maybe Hassoun Camara actually experienced the Toronto FC - Montreal Impact rivalry during the Canadian Championship. There is a rivalry between both organizations entertained via its fans, the media and hype whether it was via the game played on the field, via the historical rivalry between both cities via the NHL or even via the political arena. Currently, the Montreal Impact -Vancouver White Caps rivalry is much more relevant with the teams' NASL/USL history that transcends leagues.
401 derby, Canadian Classico, 40 West derby are among different names trying to be tagged to Toronto FC - versus the Montreal Impact. We , the media, continue to create a hype , whether it exists yet or not and this is where it all start or does it?
Derbies on the field are not created , they become. You can create an ambiance, a context and all kind of non-soccer factors and no derby flame will ignite as long as it does not translate on the field. The contrary can be true: let the players go at it while understanding the history of both cities and create the aura around a game that will be awaited and marked in people's calendar.
This is year 0 for the Montreal Impact and game 0 for Toronto FC vs Montreal Impact. This might be the beginning of a true MLS rivalry not just the ''natural'' rivalry that we want to tag it right now.
The rivalry/derby does not exist yet on the field but the surrounding/context is bubbling, the scrutiny is present and the expectations heightening . The powder keg is there, the trail has been drawn and we are just missing the flame: Blue Flame or Red Flame?
WTR: What is the strongest point of your team? And how did it show on the pitch?
MRS: The play of the team as a unit that has not stopped evolving. I suggest as a proof to watch back to back the first game of the season versus the Vancouver White Caps then the game vs Real Salt Lake. I defy anyone (outside the Montreal Impact) that would have predicted such an exponential evolution in the team's game. With only 10 weeks of pre-season with players that almost never played with each other, the way the team played from the defensive solidity , the compact technical midfield to the high pressing attacking front, has been impressive; not in the quality but in the time frame that it happened in.
To moderate my words, I am not saying that the Montreal Impact is the re-incarnation of FC Barcelona in MLS but the quality seen so early, so refined for an expansion team has been refreshing.
WTR: What is the weakest point of your team? And how did the coaching staff try and minimize the risks around that weakness?
MRS:This team is not perfect, far from it and has its share of weaknesses but one that comes back again and again is the lack of offensive spark in the last attacking third with a lack of a high-level striker. Justin Braun has worked his behind to press the other team's defense as not to allow a clean quick first pass. The flip of the coin in that situation is a lack of constant presence in the box as Justin Braun is too scattered and spends a lot of energy outside the box. This is not an inquisition on Braun and he has his place with the team but a gap in the last 20-25 meters has been seen, especially as the team is able to take on the rhythm of the game thanks to its midfield. Technically, Bernardo Corradi has brought more stability when the Montreal Impact builds its attacks which helps Sanna Nyassi, who really wants to roam around the taller, more physical center forward/striker, to find space and be more effective.
Davy Arnaud has helped by switching between the RMF and the CF position to be the extra man with smart runs and interesting challenges to the defenders. This gives another look to the creative midfielders like Justin Mapp and the fullbacks/outside backs that will look for active players in the box.