Columnist image
Noel Butler

Analyst, TSN Radio 690 Montreal


MONTREAL – When he was in Florida for the 2016 pre-season, then-Montreal Impact head coach Mauro Biello told he was going to use training camp as a platform to impose and establish a new playing style for his club.

It was a style of football that diverged from the Impact’s one-dimensional counterattacking style of play that they had become so reliant on.

Although the transition game had benefited the Impact during their 2016 MLS Cup playoff run to the Eastern Conference Championship, Biello knew full well that his team had become way too predictable. The central thrust of this new playing style was, essentially, for his team to win back possession of the ball further up the pitch.

The problem is, as we all know now, the team was unable to meet Biello’s pre-season expectations. When push would come to shove way too often, Impact players reverted back to those familiar counterattacking ways. Only this time, the opponent was not fooled. 

The Impact coaching staff simply failed to reinforce this new style of play into their players going into the 2017 MLS season. More specifically, they didn’t bring in the type of players who were both used to, and capable of, playing a ‘high press’ style of play.

It is only in adversity that one learns, and if the Impact’s 2017 off-season was remarkable for an almost complete absence of bolstering an aging squad, then the flurry of player activity that’s already transpired this pre-season is confirmation that lessons have been learned. Additionally, they are a reflection that Major League Soccer has undoubtedly taken giant leaps in recent seasons and is quickly becoming unrecognizable from what MLS was like back in 2012 when the Impact joined the league.

The investment Impact owner Joey Saputo has made in the hiring of Frenchman Remi Garde as head coach, combined with the announcement last summer of midfielder Ignacio Piatti’s contract extension, are two pillars of the new foundation for the Montreal Impact, version 2.0, who opened their 2018 training camp on Tuesday.

As in life, football is not linear. Both Saputo and Impact technical director Adam Braz have said that ‘opportunities’ for bringing in new talent exist, especially after some major changes: Laurent Ciman being traded to the expansion Los Angeles FC last month; Blerim Džemaili’s personal situation, which resulted in his move back to Bologna; and Thursday’s confirmation that 18-year-old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, the brightest bulb ever in the Impact’s academy garden, had uprooted himself to continue his development at the famed and fabled FC Barcelona (the Impact completed the transfer of the midfielder to the Spanish club for an undisclosed fee).

Many see Monday’s unveiling of Saphir Tadïer as a suitable replacement for Džemaili, although Tadïer is six years younger than the Swiss international. In Tadïer alone, we can see Garde is clearly looking to rebuild the Impact with a younger and faster base to complement the more experienced key members of his remaining squad.

Adding the likes of Raheem Edwards and Michael Petrasso, the Canadian international, is proof positive of the Impact’s willingness to invest in key Canadian prospects. This also reinforces the line taken in last week’s MLS SuperDraft where the Impact ‘cashed in’ with their two early first-round picks, forgoing adding two new prospects.

As Garde sees it, he has brighter prospects developing in the Impact’s academy. His money quote? He said he saw better players on the Canadian Olympic squad, who just so happened to be in camp at the same time as the MLS Combine that was taking place up the road in Orlando.

A clear indication of Garde’s playing philosophy for attacking football, alongside willingness to adapt his formation during the 90-minute matches, was underlined when TSN690 spoke to new Impact player Petrasso earlier in the week. “When we talked on the phone after I signed and before I got to the club, he told me he is going to bring me in as a right back, and I was versatile enough to play on the wing.”

The 22-year-old Petrasso added: “He [Garde] said he demands a high work rate. He demands players to train every day. He doesn’t want players to train one day and be off the next day. He wants everybody focused to train every day to compete for a place (on) the team.”

Another off-season addition and one of 10 new players in the Impact camp out of a total of 31 in the training camp squad is Chilean winger Jeisson Vargas. The 20-year-old certainly appears, at least on the surface, to fit that mould of the type of player that could be key to Garde’s style and the Impact’s fortunes this coming season.

As Petrasso echoes, Garde wants and most certainly needs to build an Impact squad that has healthy competition in every position – a luxury not afforded to Biello last season.

I have strong doubts that will include, despite growing rumours and reports, 32-year-old Italian midfield maverick Claudio Marchisio – a product of the Juventus Academy and winner of an incredible six Serie A titles who has recently appeared in two Champions League finals - joining the Impact.

Marchisio is under contact through 2020 and, as such, would command a mighty significant seven-figure fee and a top DP (Designated Player) salary. Even if there was willingness to splash so much cash around, Garde is all about player development.

Just look at the names of some of the now global football stars that came through Olympique Lyonnais in Garde’s two stints at the French club both as a player and then as a coach. Lyon exemplify – unlike many other top-tier clubs across European football – the rewards that are available by developing young players and then watching them flourish as they reach the biggest stages in world football.

With just Matteo Mancousu and Anthony Jackson-Hamel as the lone out and out strikers in camp, where the Impact really need to splash the cash isn’t on a Marchisio type of player, but on the rarest of commodities: a proven goal scorer. But a player like that does not come cheap, nor can they be developed. This type of player has innate talent, just like Tabla.

There are risks to all forms of investments, but we all saw and witnessed what an investment Didier Drogba turned out to be for the Impact in 2015-16. There were incredible rewards – both on and off the pitch – that the Ivory Coast international and former Chelsea star bought to the club that season.

Only time will tell if there is a willingness for the Impact to repeat what they did back in the summer of 2015. To me, this time round it’s even more vital that they make a big splash as it may well be the determining factor as to whether or not the 2018 version of the Impact will make an immediate return to the MLS playoffs.