Spratt on Impact: The Italian Influence

Conventional wisdom is that success in Major League Soccer depends largely on the quality of a team’s domestic players.

With the league’s tight salary cap, getting value out of North American "grinders" and "pluggers" is seen by many league observers as a path to sustained success in MLS.

While the Montreal Impact have their fair share of decent domestic players, their greatest managerial achievement thus far has been mining European football for players who possess quality in their boots that’s hard to find domestically.

And Italy has been ground zero for their recruitment efforts.

The players that sporting director Nick de Santis, coach Jesse Marsch and Impact executives have brought over from Italy are ideal for MLS. Although most are creeping toward the twilight of their careers, their skill on and off the ball shines in a league known more for its physical qualities than its technical ability.

Age is largely irrelevant amongst the top rung of MLS players – the league’s designated player rule has allowed teams such as Los Angeles and New York to splash big bucks in attracting the likes of David Beckham and Thierry Henry. Yes, there have been some designated players who have been absolute busts in MLS. But on the whole, the players who come over to North America in their early-to-mid-30s have provided the league’s marketing efforts with a boost, coupled with a dash of outright footballing quality.

The Impact’s Italian connection has played an essential role in shaping the lineup and exciting the local support. Let’s take a look at the five players who have played into this success in 2012.

Nelson Rivas

The big Colombian defender spent time in Serie A with Inter Milan and Livorno before signing with Montreal. Unfortunately, the hallmarks of his footballing career have been his nomadic travels and injury problems. True to form, he’s been restricted to just 11 starts in 2012, but he has been mostly solid when he’s featured in the lineup. His low salary-cap figure — assuming of course, his contract isn’t overloaded with off-the-books allocation dollars — makes him a valuable buy (or asset) for Montreal, regardless of how often he’s fit.

Matteo Ferrari

Ferrari, 32, spent most of his professional career in Italy and earned 11 caps with the Azzurri. Signing Ferrari was a shrewd move by Montreal’s management team, as like his namesake vehicle, he’s been pure class. Ferrari was unquestionably one of the most important players on the pitch for the Impact during the first half of the season. Although the spotlight on Ferrari has been overshadowed by the addition of Alessandro Nesta to Montreal’s backline, he remains a top-notch defender in MLS, a reliable rock in the middle of the Impact’s defence.

Bernardo Corradi

Though getting on in years at 36, Corradi did the job he was brought over to do, notching four goals before a serious knee injury derailed his campaign. His presence on the pitch seemed to bring out the best in Sanna Nyassi, the enigmatic winger/forward who is consistently inconsistent. It remains to be seen whether Corradi, who played for a laundry list of European clubs before coming across the pond, will be back in Montreal next season. Assuming his injury heals, his heart is in to it, and the price is right, Corradi would provide a nice veteran depth option up front for Montreal in 2013.

Marco Di Vaio

Di Vaio’s signing as the Impact’s first designated player in MLS really got supporters excited, and with good reason: even at 36, he’s recently shown off the flair that allowed him to play the majority of his career in Serie A and earn 14 caps for Italy. Though he started slowly in MLS, he’s come on strong lately with seemingly-unfounded match fixing allegations behind him. Di Vaio managed only three shots on goal in his first five games in Montreal; he’s become much more involved as his familiarity with his teammates grows, with a four-game goal scoring streak snapped in last weekend’s scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City.

Alessandro Nesta

Nesta’s signing in July is one that few would have believed possible prior to the start of the 2012 season. Nesta’s arrival signaled that the club was serious about a playoff run in their inaugural season in MLS. Although he lacks the pace to run with some speedy MLS attackers at this point in his career, he makes up for it with his footballing intelligence, positioning and passing ability. Every team in the league would love to have Nesta’s wealth of international experience shepherding their backline and imparting wisdom on their younger players.

Jon Spratt is a freelance journalist and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow Jon on Twitter.

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