On Saturday morning at Saputo Stadium, in a decision that took fans, media and even many players by surprise, Jesse Marsch and the Montreal Impact officially parted ways.
With 12 wins and 42 points in 2012, Marsch led Montreal to one of the best seasons ever posted by an expansion side in Major League Soccer. And for what he was able to accomplish in the first year, there’s no question that he deserved another season at the helm of the Impact.
But on the other hand, when a coach has lost the respect of the locker room and no longer has anything new to bring to the side, he’s bound to be dismissed.
With the Impact needing to build a new team from scratch, having a coach with knowledge of the North American market was a must and Marsch’s 14 seasons as a player in MLS and his experience as an assistant coach with the U.S. national team made him an attractive candidate.
In terms of building a solid base for the future and a team that could immediately compete in MLS, Marsch was successful.
The drawback to the Wisconsin native was that he had never coached a professional side before. And Marsch’s inexperience was noticeable throughout the season in his inability to often make the necessary changes in games, or in the several months it took for him to finally get the right players on the field and in the right tactical setup.
Marsch wasn’t fully prepared to coach a professional side. Being a player is one thing, but possessing knowledge of the methodology behind coaching a professional soccer team is something completely different. His training sessions lacked substance and were repetitive. He never really knew how to work on set pieces, or know even how they’re supposed to work.
On several occasions he even had to cut set-piece drills short because he wasn’t sure how to proceed. Consequently, having to defend a corner or a free kick always felt like a nightmare, even up until the Impact’s last game where they lost 1-0 against the New England Revolution from a set piece.
Having Italian players such as Matteo Ferrari, Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta, who have played at the highest level and under some of the very best coaches there is, didn’t at all help Marsch’s cause.
Di Vaio told Gazzetta Dello Sport in July that the "MLS needs new coaches with different ideas," which was almost surely made in reference to Marsch.
Ferrari complained to the media in August that he had been telling Marsch for more than a month to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation; when Marsch finally listened, the season took an almost dramatic turn for the better.
Nesta has been very animated in training since he’s arrived and has tried to help Marsch instruct the team on how to defend set pieces and defend in general. Though Nesta has meant well, it’s only helped further undermine Marsch’s authority.
These aforementioned players aren’t at all shy to voice their displeasure with club president Joey Saputo and sporting director Nick De Santis either, and they most certainly have had some sway.
Despite Marsch’s managerial limitations, the Impact still managed to do quite well and it’s quite unfair for Marsch, who helped build this team and get them to where they are, to have been let go and not given the chance to continue for another season.
Would Marsch have been able to get this team playing at a higher level? Probably not, but certainly keeping him for one more season would have been the more prudent thing to do and would have brought some stability. With a few additions, the team could have certainly made a veritable run at the playoffs.
A solid base has been put in place, but the risk is that the new coach ruptures the work that’s been done so far.
Marsch gave the Impact a foothold in MLS, but at the same time, Saputo doesn’t want to be just another MLS team: he wants a more European style of play and the core of the Impact is European.
Six of the nine players that Saputo highlighted as being part of the Impact’s "nucleus" – Patrice Bernier, Di Vaio, Nesta, Ferrari, Nelson Rivas and Felipe – are either European or have plied their trade in Europe.
The logical outcome is that the next coach will be a European – probably Italian – and one with plenty of experience as well.
Italian coaches are in high demand these days and are travelling well; they wouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting to MLS. The advantage of an Italian would also be the fact that Italian coaches are very accustomed to dealing with extremely demanding club presidents, for that’s the norm in Italy.
A European coach could also help the Impact not just with the first team, but also with the development of the overall framework of the club, particularly the academy setup. The Impact is, after all, a new club and many of its layers are still fairly primitive and need improving – and direction.
In many ways Montreal is very European city, and a club that follows a more European model would be a nice fit and one that the more picky local supporters of the European game would have an easier time embracing.
Ultimately, it’s Saputo’s team and as it is his team, he can do as he pleases. But Marsch was a popular figure amongst the fans, and if the next coach isn’t successful, Saputo and De Santis are going to hear it from the fans and things could potentially get a little ugly too.
However, the move does show that Saputo and De Santis are extremely ambitious; only time will tell if they were foolhardy.
Sadly for Marsch, he didn’t get the farewell deserving of one who gave everything every day to build something special.
And it has been special.
But he’s a competitor, and in whatever the future holds for him, he will persevere and succeed, as winners do.
Nick Sabetti is a Montreal-based writer who covers the Montreal Impact for Goal.com. Follow Nick on Twitter.