Ahead of Saturday's game I swapped questions and answers with Giovanni Sardo of SB Nation's Impact blog Mount Royal Soccer, discussing just how Montreal have got off to such a good start, what might change now they're playing at home, and how Marco Schallibaum is adapting to MLS. Many thanks to Gio, read my answers to his questions at the end of this, and without further ado, Montreal. How you doin'?
Waking the Red: Top of the league. With 2 west coast away games behind you. What's been the biggest cause of that? Which players have been the most important so far?
Mount Royal Soccer: The biggest cause is Coach Marco Schallibaum's coaching style which is predicated on strong pressure, ball control, short passes and movement off the ball. They used this very effectively against both Portland and Seattle. It allows the team to create turnovers and counter attack quickly.
Another reason is thanks to new trainer Paolo Pacione. Last season, the Impact's biggest issue, especially on the road, was being able to compete in the last 15 minutes. The players would be tired and breakdown defensively allowing the opponent the freedom to be dangerous and either tie or take the lead. Too many points were lost this way. Pacione was hired in the off-season to boost the players endurance and it is paying instant dividends. While the last 15 minutes against Portland and Seattle were still tough to survive, the Impact were able to survive. It is a work in progress but the early results are extremely positive.
As for key players, they are: Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari: The two Italian defensemen have been instrumental in shutting down the opposing strike force and controlling the defensive line. They always make sure that everyone is in the right place and communicating. They are also able to clean up any mistakes. Patrice Bernier: The hometown midfielder has been asked to play a more defensive role so far this season and so far, he has been nothing short of incredible. Last week against Portland, he was able to simply shut down the ultra talent Valeri.
WTR: MLS historically hasn't been all that kind to foreign coaches. So far Marco Schallibaum's doing fine, does it look like he'll have trouble adapting to MLS or does Montreal's European flavour mean he won't really have to?
MRS: The difference between Coach Marco and the other foreign coaches is the talent that is at his disposal. It is one thing to ask a Euro coach to manage an MLS team, it is another to ask him to manage a team loaded with talent who understand his mentality.
Defensively, three quarters of the defensive line is European. Hassoun Camara is French. He understands the European style very well and has adapted very well to the new style. The presence of Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari don't need any explanation. There is also injured defender Nelson Rivas who used to play in Italy. The only 'outsider' is Jeb Brovsky but he is such a warrior and solid player that he fits in with ANY style.
In the midfield, there is the Brazilian midfield maestro Felipe who was arguably one of MLS' best in his first North American season. The newly added Italian Andrea Pisanu has played in Italy all his life. Finally, there is local boy Patrice Bernier who is not European but spent 10 years playing overseas and has the mentality and the familiarity that Coach Marco loves. When you also factor in the Italian goal scoring threat that is Marco Di Vaio, the Montreal Impact are blessed with 7 out of 11 TALENTED and DESERVING starters who are European and don't need much to adapt to a foreign coaching style.
Having so many foreigners helps reduce the learning curve for the North Americans to adapt their playing style and be effective when called into action. Coach Marco will help reverse the thinking that European coaches cannot succeed in the MLS. I truly believe that he will bring an MLS Cup to Montreal.
WTR: The first 2 games saw Montreal thrive using the counter attack. They can't do that at home against TFC can they? What changes will we see for this game?
MRS: I don't think that Coach Marco will make any changes against TFC. Will all due respect to our Canadian rivals but if our game plan can work to get full points in Seattle and Portland, two of the MLS' toughest stadiums, it should work very well against them. Montreal will continue to use a similar game plan based on movement off the ball, strong defensive pressure, short passes and a quick counter attack. The only game plan tweaking that I can possibly think of would be to launch Marco Di Vaio more often. Despite strong play and reduced offside calls, the Italian DP has yet to score this season. The Impact would love nothing more than to see him open his account at home and against a rival.
WTR: Lineup, formation and score prediction?
Impact win 3-1.
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MRS: When the hiring of new manager Ryan Nelsen was announced, many poked fun at TFC. He was still an active player, there were no guarantees if he would join the team in time, he has no managerial experience, etc... Now that he is on the job, what does he bring to the table? What has he changed in TFC's culture, organization and playing style?
WTR: The initial reaction was indeed one of shock and derision, but really, after some time to think about it, there's a few reasons that it wasn't all that big of a deal. 1) They probably knew exactly what the timing would be, but just couldn't say so. 2) Thankfully he didn't really miss much time after all. 3) Imagine if they'd said "we've hired a new coach, he's got a job to do over in Europe, and he's going to finish it so he won't be here for a while, but anyway, Ladies and Gents, I give you Jose Mourinho!" No-one would give a shit about the timing, so really it comes down to 'if the coach is good enough, he's worth waiting for'.
That does bring up the very legitimate concern about his appointment, his lack of experience. Is he the right coach? We won't know that for a while. So far though he's been impressive. While the roster wasn't ready for the start of the season and remains a work in progress, probably will all season, the tactics we've seen so far have been a pleasant surprise. It's been patchy, we're far from playing a complete 90 minute performance, but there's been very good signs of what Nelsen's trying to do, mainly the new defensive approach he's bringing.
There's a high pressure being used, which caused the first goal against Kansas City and the defence is doing a good job of clearing up the long balls that that can produce. When the opposition does keep possession into our half, the defence and midfield are clogging up the middle and forcing opponents to the outside to put crosses in, which Darren O'Dea and Danny Califf can generally do a good job at winning. It's on the ugly side, but it's a welcome shift in focus for a team that gave up 62 goals last year.
Also, he's a welcome change to Paul Mariner, on and off the sidelines. He's generally calm during the game itself as opposed to Mariner who was very actively coaching throughout the game, and his press conferences are very realistic, playing up just how far TFC have to go rather than Mariner's often ludicrously talking up how well TFC played. It's early days, but it all seems very professional so far.
MRS: TFC has made a big number of changes to the roster. Who are the key players that left? Will they be missed? Who are the new key additions and what are their roles this season?
WTR: Yep, the revolving door just keeps on revolving. A lot of the players leaving were never going to be more than bit players, but I'd say there's 5 who could have had an impact. Torsten Frings, Eric Hassli, Ryan Johnson, Milos Kocic and Joao Plata. In a way they'll all be missed, but let's face it, they were there on and off last season and they didn't really help did they. TFC isn't at a place where a luxury player like Plata can help, or where the extra quality of players like Hassli and Frings can put them over the top, their cap space can be better served by building quality throughout the squad. Joe Bendik looks like being a decent and presumably cheaper replacement for Kocic. The one I'll miss most is Ryan Johnson, he's just the kind of player a team like TFC could use and I could see him doing very well with Portland this year.
As for who's come in, well one who's very similar to Ryan Johnson, but with more of a pedigree is Robert Earnshaw who's looked lively up front and showed his goalscoring ability with a couple of goals last week. John Bostock impressed last week on the right wing, but he's a tricky winger with no right foot, so I'm not convinced he'll be a consistent performer for us. Best new addition so far has been Danny Califf. I had my doubts about how well he and Darren O'Dea would work, but so far it's gone very well, Califf's great at using his body to block out the forwards and has dealt well with a lot of crosses into the box over the 2 games. Also his experience and know how has been very helpful to cover for Richard Eckersley when he's attacking or pressing high up the pitch. By the time this is published we may well have signed young Argentinian forward Maximiliano Urruti, probably to a young DP contract. He's a big unknown, looks like plenty of potential, Argentinian DP certainly sounds sexy, but how it will work out who knows.
MRS:Is this the year that TFC makes the playoffs? Why or why not?
WTR: No. Too far back to come from. Last year's team was terrible, plus we had a very thorough purge which puts us further back, and the rebuilds came very late so we didn't really get the benefit of preseason, which puts us even further back. Payne and Nelsen would have to be miracle workers just to get to the playoffs. If we can get some of the basic things right this year, improve the squad, get a consistent formation and style ingrained, then that'll be a successful campaign to build upon, but I'm not going to predict anything more than that.
MRS: Ex-Impact forward Justin Braun is now a TFC player. His time in Montreal can be described as 'frustrating' or 'unsatisfying'. What will be his role with the team this year? Can he actually contribute to any success TFC may have this season.
WTR: Up until about 2 days before the season started, he was our only centre forward and concussed at that. Things have improved since then, and, injuries not withstanding, when he recovers he'll be a bench player at best, an alternate choice when we need a more physical presence than Earnshaw brings.
MRS: Who should the Impact fear most and why?
WTR: I'll say John Bostock. He showed a lot of skill last week so may be able to mesmerise more full backs this week. If he doesn't beat you with his skill, well look out for the flopping. Knock the ball past the defender, run into the defender, then fall over was a huge tactic for him against SKC. With Baldomero Toledo as the ref, there's all sorts of potential for cards to be given out.
MRS: Probable formation and starting lineup:
WTR: Right to Left. Joe Bendik; Richard Eckersley, Danny Califf, Danny O'Dea, Ashtone Morgan; Terry Dunfield, Jeremy Hall; John Bostock, Hogan Ephraim, Reggie Lambe; Robert Earnshaw. A 4-2-3-1, which will probably play more like a 4-4-1-1. There might well be players returning from injury who get in there, such as Julio Cesar or Luis Silva, but I'll guess at an unchanged XI.
MRS: Prediction on final score?