Season preview: New-look Impact full of intrigue and uncertainty

Remi-Garde

Montreal Impact coach Remi Garde, pictured above. (CP Photo)

Following a disappointing 2017 season that led to the firing of head coach Mauro Biello, the Montreal Impact underwent a major transformation in the winter ahead of the upcoming MLS campaign.

Remi Garde was hired as Biello’s replacement and he immediately identified the members of his coaching staff, most of whom came over from Lyon. They are fitting moves as Garde, who coached the Ligue 1 side from 2011 to 2014, wants to implement a similar club model in Montreal.

“I was developed by Lyon, I played for Lyon, I trained in Lyon,” Garde said during his introductory press conference in November. “Even though I experienced playing elsewhere, that club has its stamp on me. And in that club, there is a certain playing philosophy, which is an offensive philosophy, a goalscoring philosophy, to play a possession style of game. So, I would say that is my ideal approach.”

One of Lyon’s philosophies includes bringing academy players into the first team and seeing them develop into key contributors. The Impact were one of the oldest teams in MLS last year with an average age of 27.06 years. It was clear that an injection of youth was priority No. 1.

Captain Patrice Bernier and defender Hassoun Camara retired. Laurent Ciman was traded to expansion side Los Angeles FC. Midfielder Hernan Bernardello was not re-signed, while Blerim Dzemaili departed for Europe. The squad became younger, but also barren. Fourteen players were either loaned, sold or had expired contracts.

While one academy graduate in Ballou Tabla left, two more came in. Goalkeeper James Pantemis and centre-back Thomas Meilleur-Giguere were signed to homegrown deals. Meilleur-Giguere was loaned to the Ottawa Fury, Montreal’s USL affiliate, but the Canadian youth international could be in line for a run of games this campaign.

No other Canadian MLS team handed more starts or minutes to national team-eligible players than Montreal last season. Garde’s Lyon pedigree and the willingness to play domestic players could lead to more opportunities for the newly signed homegrown talents.

The Impact bolstered their Canadian corps even further after acquiring Raheem Edwards as part of the Ciman trade, and brought in Michael Petrasso from Queens Park Rangers as well. Experienced French defender Zakaria Diallo was a free transfer and Jukka Raitala was involved in the LAFC transaction along with Edwards. Saphir Taider transferred from Bologna with Dzemaili going the other direction, while the addition of Chile international Jeisson Vargas rounded out a slew of astute deals.

Taider will likely partner Samuel Piette in midfield. The designated player – who was assigned Bernier’s No. 8 shirt – should be a consistent box-to-box player that Montreal has lacked in the past, while Piette will operate as the holder.

Vargas is an especially exciting pick-up. The Chilean is an excellent dribbler and an efficient creator. He doesn’t force a pass, but when there is an open channel, he’ll execute the killer through ball. In fact, the 20-year-old had as many assists (three) as Atlanta United’s prized signing Ezequiel Barco in Argentina last season, despite only playing around 300 minutes compared to nearly 2,000 for Barco.

Garde certainly has some intriguing options across the pitch, but he was primarily focused on fitness throughout the pre-season in an effort to shake off the Impact’s late-game collapses last season. Fifteen goals were conceded after the 75th minute, most of which led to dropped points.

Defending set pieces was also an issue. Only the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes (13) allowed more than Montreal’s 12 in those situations last season.

The acquisition of Diallo, a tall and commanding defender, would help under normal circumstances. However, he was hurt in a recent training and will miss several months with an Achilles injury. Kyle Fisher is also out for four months, which has significantly thinned out the centre-back depth.

The season hasn’t even begun and the Impact already have a serious dilemma.

Here is a closer look at the 2018 Montreal Impact.

Player to watch

Victor Cabrera. The Argentinean will share the burden of the defensive responsibility now that Diallo is injured. Raitala, normally a left-back, has played centrally during the pre-season so there is some chemistry already.

However, given the Impact’s poor defensive record last year, these first few months are massive for Cabrera. He’s been a consistent starter for Montreal and his reading of the game is excellent. The former River Plate man was tied for the league lead in interceptions per game (3.1) and was in the top 10 in tackles (3.2) among all MLS players in 2017, per WhoScored. The latter is a misleading stat because those challenges can be executed out of position, but the former is a better indicator of a positionally disciplined defender.

Now that Ciman is in Los Angeles, it’ll be worth monitoring the 25-year-old’s performances, especially now that he’s the go-to centre-back without the Belgian next to him.

Newcomer to watch

Jeisson Vargas. The youngster could be a difference-maker for Montreal’s attack this season, whether he’s playing centrally or out wide.

If Vargas develops an understanding with Piatti, it could be one of MLS’ most devastating attacking duos.

Big question

Will the Impact cope without Diallo? If the Frenchman was fit, this would be a drastically improved side. The only concern would’ve been Michael Petrasso as he is a converted full-back and a new signing. Now the major worry is whether the defence will actually be an improvement from 2017.

Expectations

That aforementioned uncertainty really jades the Impact’s outlook for 2018. The Eastern Conference was already strong on paper last year, and those same playoff teams re-loaded with some major additions, especially Atlanta United and New York City FC. That hinders Montreal’s playoff chances.

Montreal need a few factors to go in their favour. The players have to buy into Garde’s system and execute it perfectly. That could take time given the turnover of the squad. One of Matteo Mancosu or Anthony Jackson-Hamel have to be a consistent scorer, plus there could be another signing made for the defence after Diallo’s injury.

MLS is a wild league. Teams experience drastic changes in form, and that could benefit Montreal. But given the new coach, the squad turnover, the injection of youth and early injuries, the expectations are still an uncertainty at this stage for the Impact.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.