MONTREAL — Patrice Bernier is the type of player who doesn’t need an invitation to stop and talk some soccer, especially when there’s a question that might require a more elaborate explanation.
When the 37-year-old Brossard, Que., native speaks he often sounds like a philosopher. His answers tend to be already well thought out — also passionate, insightful and detailed. He’s seldom reticent. Sometimes he might hesitate a little or lower his head and shake it slightly — his way of acknowledging that a difficult question has been posed — but then proceed to provide several possible answers with nuance. Maybe it’s this … he’d say … or maybe it’s that.
Recently, inside the Montreal Impact’s training facility, its long windows partly blurred by the cold and rain outside, there was a rare instance of Bernier not having any explanation. How to account for the team’s proclivity to starting games so sluggishly?
“I don’t know” the veteran midfielder said.
It’s not as if the Impact haven’t had occasion enough to consider the problem at length. The hazardously slow starts have already happened a bunch of times in Major League Soccer play this season. Before the halftime break in Philadelphia the Impact were down 3-1; at home to Columbus they were fortunate to only be losing 2-0; and the 1-0 deficits in San Jose and New York could easily have been larger.
Last Tuesday provided a pretty good opportunity to help change the bad habit — Montreal was playing against a Vancouver Whitecaps side precariously testing out a back-three system for the first time and with nine none-starters to boot. And even still the Impact were once again considerably outplayed in the first half en route to a 2-1 loss in the first leg of the Canadian Championship semifinals. Yes, they were on the road, and had traveled six hours, and were resting a bevy of key players also, but still.
“It was unacceptable,” said goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who earned in his first official start with the first team and will play again for Tuesday’s return leg at Stade Saputo.
After the game, coach Mauro Biello, who’s never afraid of calling things the way they are, probably described the first 45 minutes best: “It was embarrassing”.
What makes the Impact’s slow starts all the more puzzling is how so often afterwards they remarkably recover and turn games around.
In New York, they clawed back to a draw. In Philadelphia, it ended 3-3. They still lost to Columbus at home but had a very good second half and nearly won. Against the Whitecaps, after the first half and after Bernier was subbed in — along with academy forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel — the game changed. The other young homegrown guns —the terrific Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla and the promising David Choiniere — started to find space. Through a nice feed from Jackson-Hamel, Choiniere put the Impact on the board.
And then another very unusual thing happened with Bernier: he missed a penalty shot, which would have made it 2-2 and given the Impact the advantage going into the second leg.
“At least we’re not asleep for 90 minutes,” Bernier said. “There’s a lot of character on this team, but it would be nice to start the games the right way.”
The Whitecaps are the slight favourites to progress, but Biello told reporters that he’s going to go with his starters this time. What will coach Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps do? It’s not clear. Biello says it’s not important: “We have to win”.
And they should win, given the fact that the Impact will be fully rested as they have this weekend off from MLS duties. The Whitecaps lost 1-0 at home to D.C. United on Saturday, and it’s likely that Robinson will go with a similar, largely experimental lineup.
If the Impact have had a wildly inconsistent start to the season, the Canadian Championship offers the Impact a chance to win a trophy and give them some confidence for the second half of the year. Winning wouldn’t guarantee them a place in the CONCACAF Champions League — they would still have to beat Toronto FC away in a newly added playoff game later in August — but Champions League aside, Bernier stressed the importance of the domestic cup.
“We won it twice,” Bernier said. “This could be three out of the last six years. And at the end of the day it says who’s the best Canadian team, even if it’s a tournament format.”
The Impact have shown that they play best when their backs are against the wall, so that bodes well for Tuesday’s return leg at Stade Saputo. But it’s still a bit of a mystery as to why they can’t perform better in more normal circumstances. Maybe it’s simply a personnel issue, which might explain why Bernier didn’t impart any of his usual wisdom. The summer window should provide the Impact to add those couple important pieces — in central defence and central midfield —that could turn this team into a serious contender again.
It’s probably not in Biello’s character to get upset. He’s one of the calmest coaches the Impact have ever had. But he’s had to raise his voice at halftime several times now. And he admitted doing so again in Vancouver.
“I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I wanted to give some emotion to the group. You have to have passion when you play and I was trying to transmit that.”
And, to his credit, the players (again) responded.
But one solution might be, if it hasn’t been tried already, to kick some chairs around before the game starts.