MONTREAL – For all the good things the Montreal Impact did as a Major League Soccer expansion club last year, their 2-12-3 record in away games lingers as a reminder that it wasn’t all thrills and excitement.
That will have to be fixed if the team is to contend for a playoff spot in its second season.
And it starts right away, as the Impact open the season Saturday before what is expected to be a huge crowd in Seattle followed a week later by another tough test in Portland. They return home to face Toronto FC on March 16 at Olympic Stadium.
“The mental part is very important,” new coach Marco Schallibaum said this week. “The field is like here, but altogether it’s not easy to win in Seattle.
“But I trust my team and they can trust me to be ready.”
It will be a first MLS game that counts in the standings for Schallibaum, the veteran coach from Switzerland who replaced inexperienced Jesse Marsch at the helm of a veteran squad led by Italian stars Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio, as well as American captain Davy Arnaud and midfielder Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Que.
He took over a team largely unchanged from last season except for the addition of much-needed right side midfielder Andrea Pisanu, Di Vaio’s former teammate at Bologna in Italy’s Serie-A.
The Impact’s stated goal for the season is make the playoffs, and then to see if they can vie for a championship from there.
But they will have to win many more away games than they did a year ago.
Seattle is a particularly tough stop, as the Sounders led the MLS with more than 43,000 spectators per game last season.
“We have a lot of players who have played a lot of big games in front of big crowds,” said Arnaud. “But Seattle is very special.
“It’s not an easy place to play, but it gives us motivation. We like playing in front of that many fans whether we’re home or away. It’s mostly before the game, walking out, when you have to control your emotions. Once the game starts, we’ll be fine.”
The Impact hope to tighten up their defence, particularly late in games and especially off set piece plays like free kicks and corners. Most of those mistakes made last season came on the road, while at home they were 10-4-3. That included a 3-1 victory in their only meeting with the Sounders.
They also hope to move the ball more quickly and be less predictable. That’s where 31-year-old Pisanu should help by giving them at least one wide option instead of concentrating the attack through the middle.
Schallibaum closed his final practice before flying out to the media, mainly to keep set piece plays from prying eyes.
Barring surprises, the starting lineup should have Troy Perkins in goal, with Nesta and Matteo Ferrari in the central defence, Hassoun Camara on the right and Jeb Brovsky at left back.
Patrice Bernier will play defensive midfielder behind Pisanu, Arnaud, Felipe Martins and Justin Mapp, with Di Vaio as the striker.
They will face a Seattle side that dealt one of its best defenders, Jeff Parke, to the Philadelphia Union, and also saw one of its top scorers Fredy Montero leave on loan. They will also be missing defender Marc Burch and their top midfielder Osvaldo Alonso to suspensions.
The Sounders are led by striker Eddie Johnson, whose rights they got in a trade last season with Montreal for Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle. Neagle was traded back to Seattle in January and will no doubt be pumped for a big game.
The Sounders added former Liverpool centre back Djimi Traore and are expected soon to sign ex-Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins from Spanish club Levante.
Seattle is hoping to challenge for a championship after reaching the Western Conference final last season.
So is Montreal.
“I think we have the squad to do it,” said Bernier. “I don’t think anyone wanted us to sneak into the playoffs last year because playing us would have been tough.”
Both teams are coming off victories in pre-season tournaments, with the Impact capturing the Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Florida while the Sounders won the Desert Diamond Cup in Arizona.
The Impact will remain on the west coast to prepare for Portland rather than make the trip back and forth twice.
The Impact were given a big send-off this week to mark their 20th anniversary. The team was founded in 1993 and won three championships in lower leagues before joining MLS last season.
Members of the 1993 team, including the current sporting director Nick De Santis and assistant coach Mauro Biello and former coach John Limniatis, were reunited at a cocktail gathering Wednesday night. The 2013 team showed off the club’s new third jersey, which is based on the 1993 kit.
Some of the oldtimers are now in broadcasting, including Jason deVos, Lloyd Barker and Grant Needham.