MONTREAL — The challenge for the Montreal Impact these days is to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.
Three wins in as many games to start the Major League Soccer season will do that to a team that struggled out of the gate as an expansion team last year.
Now they go into a game Saturday afternoon against the winless New York Red Bulls (0-1-2) as the favourite. The no-name newcomers of 2012 are now first overall in the 19-team league and will no longer take opponents by surprise.
“There’s a certain image an expansion team has,” captain Davy Arnaud said Friday. “Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s always how it’s been.
“But now we’ve been around for a year. We’ve played against all the teams. They know the players we have. It’s natural that there’s going to be a little more respect there, but it doesn’t change our mentality in any way.”
In their fourth game last season, the Impact were overwhelmed 5-2 in New York to fall to 0-3-1. It took them 10 games to get to three wins.
It’s still very early in the season, but they have become a team that opponents must take seriously.
“We know that when you’re on the top of the mountain, everyone’s looking to knock you off,” said defender Jeb Brovsky. “It’s good to be in that position, but now the work had just started.
“Every team is gunning for us. And as (coach) Marco Schallibaum says, we have to confirm why we’re there, why we did so well. But there’s no question in our minds that we’re a very good team and we’re moving forward.”
The crowd of about 25,000 that is expected at Olympic Stadium will miss seeing some of the biggest names on both rosters.
Former Italian international defender Alessandro Nesta will sit out with a groin injury for Montreal, while midfielder Sanna Nyassi is away with the Gambian national team.
For New York, French striker Thierry Henry opted to stay home to rest a weary foot rather than play on artificial turf, while midfielder Tim Cahill is off to play for Australia and defender Roy Miller is with Costa Rica.
The Impact will keep an eye on New York forward Fabian Espindola, who has two goals, and 37-year-old Brazilian star Juninho.
The Red Bulls had some of their best games last season when their big names were out of the lineup.
“Henry’s a big player and the type of player that strikes fear, but he’s not coming,” said midfielder Patrice Bernier. “The way I see it, another guy will fill the gap and want to show the coach he deserves to play.”
Schallibaum hasn’t said how his defence will line up without Nesta, who left 12 minutes into last week’s 2-1 win over Toronto. Most of the practice was closed to the media.
It appears that Matteo Ferrari and Hassoun Camara will remain in the central defence with Brovsky on the left side. Last week, Dennis Iapichino was not impressive as a substitute and committed the needless foul that gave Toronto’s Robert Earnshaw a goal from the spot.
Zarek Valentin is the likely candidate for right fullback.
The midfield should have Bernier just behind Andrea Pisanu, Felipe Martins, Arnaud and Andres Romero, with Marco Di Vaio up front.
Troy Perkins, who got save of the week honours from MLS for a leaping stop on TFC, is in goal.
The Red Bulls feel they had their best game in their home opener last week against D.C. United. It was a 0-0 draw, but they outshot D.C. 24-5.
“We’re very confident going into the game based on our performance against D.C.” Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said on the team’s website. “We have lots of respect for Montreal.
“They’ve started the season very strong and it’s going to be a fantastic atmosphere. But we’re ready to get our first win of the season.”
The Impact came away from their home opener against Toronto glad for the three points but unhappy at a weak second half dominated by the Reds.
Schallibaum said the club needs to focus on imposing its game for the full 90 minutes.
“We worked on ball possession because we weren’t good,” he said. “If you’re running after the ball it wears you out faster.
“But I also think it was mental. It was the first game in front of our fans. We were the favourite, and maybe some players weren’t used to that. When you’re in first place, you’re the team to beat. That’s new for some players.”
New York were 2-1-0 against Montreal in a 2012 season series that produced 14 goals. Montreal won the last meeting 3-1 on July 28.