The Montreal Impact have been the epitome of two very different teams this season. Early in the year, Montreal focused primarily on counter-attacking. They took advantage of the pressure on other MLS teams searching for identity and consistency. When teams attacked, they soaked up the pressure, and countered through the likes of Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud. Arnaud in particular was to take the plaudits in the opening weeks of the season. In order for counter attacking football to work, you need a lethal finisher. The Impact were able to boast the striker of the season, Marco Di Vaio, whose predatory instinct to time his runs left teams stung.
By the halfway point, Montreal sat atop of the standings. After 17 games, the Impact had an impressive 9-4-4 record, and a points total of 31. Unfortunately, this was as good as it was to get for Montreal. New coach Schallibaum had added chemistry and cohesion to a talented Montreal side, but destroyed it as quickly as he built it up. Too often, Montreal would concede and become a different side. Looking lost, they’d often rush and panic pass the ball around midfield, before blasting a ball over the top for Di Vaio to chase. It is of little surprise that Di Vaio only increased his number of offsides as the season went on.
Schallibaum also caused issues with other players. Players such as Matteo Ferrari were so overplayed it became painful to watch them play another game. While it is of no use to the player, it is understandable why Schallibaum stuck with Ferrari; he was usually excellent for the Impact. However, his inclusion of players such as Pisanu was bizarre, for he was consistently poor yet had been rewarded with 14 starts.
These decisions led the Impact’s fine start to the season be ruined by their final eight game streak. They won none of these games, lost seven and won one. Three points out a possible twenty four is not the form of a playoff team. The Impact will look back at their season start as the only reason they snuck into the playoffs, relying on other teams. But if you listen to Bernier, the season wasn’t a write off. The Impact achieved their primary goal:
“The objective was to get into the playoffs. It’s a second season and as in all sports, you have another chance. If I remember correctly, last year’s finalists finished 4th and 5th so everything is possible.”
Bernier was entirely correct, the regular season ended and the Impact succeeded. However, the poor second half of the season was to haunt the team. With little time to fix all the issues Montreal had accumulated, the playoffs were to continue in the same vein that their end of season had.
The Houston Dynamo were hardly all smiles, having their fair share of struggles throughout the season as well. In the first playoff game, the Dynamo played one of their easiest matches of the season. Montreal’s predictable Di Vaio dependency was negated by Houston’s intelligent back-line. With Di Vaio cutting a frustrated and isolated figure, Houston began to harry and pressure Montreal. They scored a goal of great quality, after a Ricardo Clark flick played Bruin in for a classy finish. Once again, Montreal’s mentality showed. They collapsed and allowed another two goals to be conceded. Furthermore, they decided to get three players sent off, one of which was the isolated Di Vaio.
The night was as about as embarrassing a night as the Canadian club could have created. Over the last few days, rumors have circulated that the retiring Nesta is to take over from Schallibaum. Essentially, Schallibaum could have no complaints. He handled the pre-season and early season expertly, but managed to destroy his own hard work with bizarre tactics due to a lack of rotation and trust in other players. He should however be cut some slack over the front office’s transfer business. The lack of support and secondary striker caused the dependency on Di Vaio. Also, the need to play the far too-aggressive Rivas in such a big game further illustrated the lack of depth that Montreal had all season.
Whether Schallibaum gets the chance or not, there is a core to a very good team in Montreal. They showed their effectiveness using an Italian-style counter attacking football. With further depth and management consistency, there’s no reason Montreal can’t improve next season.