The 2012 MLS season marches onward, and the “expansion” Montreal Impact will not be left behind and bow out out the race for the last playoff spot in the East. If you had told me at the beginning of the season that we would still be in the race for that last spot I would have said that’s the best I can ask from this team in their first season in the MLS. I only wish there weren’t so many teams in the race with games at hand on us. DC United have four games on us, Chicago three, and Columbus five. What percentage of these games will be won by these teams I don’t know. All the Impact can do is play every game as if it were a matter of life and death, and on this front I think the Impact have it in them to do this.
It’s been quite a ride for the club, the players, and the team this inaugural season. Playing to two record-breaking crowds at the cavernous Olympic Stadium, and then moving to the wonderful Stade Saputo to what were initially disappointing crowds must have left the club and players scratching their heads. I must admit I was scratching my head when I saw just under 13,000 for one game at the Stade Saputo, but then again, it was the weekend of the St. Jean where many leave town to hideaways in the Laurentians or Eastern Townships. My own view is that once Montrealers get into the habit of going to Impact games at Saputo they’ll find it hard to stop going. It’s just about the most perfect stadium this city has ever had for soccer. I love it, and will be a full season ticket holder for next season.
On the field, things have evolved in ways I didn’t expect. First, I have been surprised and very pleased that the kind of team that was built for this season is the kind of team that likes to attack. I perhaps shouldn’t have been, knowing that the Impact are run by people who know Montreal and know what kind of teams Montrealers like. This was the home of the Flying Frenchmen, after all. Montrealers like attacking teams, and the Impact have definitely fit the mold.
But our backline has been suspect at best, giving up a whopping 43 goals in 25 games. I’ve blamed Ricketts for this. His erratic play and positioning, coupled with his inability to take charge of his area, bewildered his defenders and often led to bizarre goals being conceded at the worst possible times. What surprised here was why they insisted on him starting all but one of the games, when the young Evan Bush has shown himself to be a more than capable replacement. He might be a lot shorter, but the defenders definitely seemed more comfortable in front of him. The Ricketts for Perkins trade was an inspired move by the club, and solves what was for me our biggest problem.
Then there’s Di Vaio. Oh, Di Vaio. Many of us had high hopes for him, but he has been a major disappointment. You can see moments of great skill that sets him apart from most in the MLS, but they’re few and far between. He just hasn’t had the drive and often seems like a ghost on the pitch, as one good friend of mine put it. When news came out that he was being investigated in connection with a match fixing case in Italy, his poor play started to make sense. Prior to getting the news, I expressed to friends that he was playing like a depressed man. Then we heard he was cleared, and now again it appears he isn’t cleared yet. All this has to be affecting his ability to focus on the task at hand. As things stand, when Di Vaio starts for the Impact it often feels as if we’re starting a man down. So Di Vaio has been an unpleasant surprise.
On to Andrew Wenger, a fantastic player and for many of us, a game changer on the pitch. That he hasn’t played more given his obvious talents has been a huge surprise. It would be inexplicable if it were not for the fact that the Impact as an organization have made a major investment in Di Vaio. In my view, this investment was the only mistake made by the organization in this first MLS season for the club. Wenger is the future, Di Vaio the past. That the Pennsylvania born Wenger has taken on writing a blog chronicling his experiences here in Montreal, and taking the time to engage with Impact fans, makes him a PR dream for the club. An intelligent, talented young player is young Mr. Wenger. I hope he’ll be with us for a few more seasons, and that he’ll eventually learn French.
Then there’s the arrival of Nesta, the best move the club made prior to the Ricketts-Perkins trade. I suspect he might have had something to do with that too. His influence on the backline was immediately felt. Seeing a defender of his caliber has been a real pleasure for the fans. Once he arrived, you felt that our defensive weaknesses would be resolved, but there was still the problem of Ricketts. Now with that taken care of, the Impact have just about everything in place to make the playoffs this season. This is now a decent team.
They just have to start playing Wenger more than Di Vaio! Don’t see it happening, but it’s the only real weakness I can see with the team.