Once in a while, Montreal Impact coach Jesse Marsch leads off his daily media scrums with a phrase or two in French.
While not fluent in the language spoken by a majority of the Major League Soccer club’s fans, the Racine, Wisc., native works twice a week with a tutor to improve his French. He seems to be making progress.
“I can read it and understand it really well and now I just have to work on speaking,” Marsch said Monday.
When Marsch was hired to be the MLS club’s coach last August, a few questions were raised about why the Impact didn’t bring in a French-speaking coach. It is not as if soccer has no history in French-speaking cultures like France or Belgium, which have produced top-level coaches.
But it was nothing compared with the controversy that surrounded Randy Cunneyworth’s promotion to head coach of the Montreal Canadiens last season. The Toronto native, who succeeded Jacques Martin in midseason, was the NHL team’s first non-French-speaking coach in four decades.
The cries of protest even reached the Quebec legislature and were so intense that team owner Geoff Molson issued an apology to fans and promised the next coach would be bilingual. At season’s end, Cunneyworth was demoted back to assistant coach and the search for a new head man began.
“I thought that was a little unfair because [Cunneyworth]was just trying to do the best job he can,” said Marsch. “But I understand what that team means to this community and how its community takes pride in the uniqueness of it.
“That’s why I’ve tried to speak French at different times and learn it better. And whatever we do as a team I’m always trying to honour who we are as a club and who the city is.”
Club president Joey Saputo and his staff felt it was best to build a team with a coach who knew MLS inside out, and that was Marsch. He had a long playing career in North America’s top league and was working as assistant coach on the U.S. national team when he was hired.
It has worked so far, as the team recovered from a slow start to post a better-than-expected 3-5-2 record in its first 10 MLS games, including wins in its last two league matches. Only 10,000 tickets remain to be sold for a game Saturday night against England international David Beckham and the L.A Galaxy at 60,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
Several of Marsch’s players have also been picking up at least some French, including Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins, who tweeted that he will begin taking classes this week.
It’s a logical first step for most of the players on the expansion team who have been brought in from around the world to a city most knew little about.
The team’s 28 players list birthplaces in 13 countries. Only two have French as their first language: midfielder Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Que., and defender Hassoun Camara of France.
There are more Italian speakers, including former Italy internationals Bernardo Corradi and Matteo Ferrari, and Colombian defender Nelson Rivas, who played for Inter Milan. The designated player they are chasing, striker Marco Di Viao, is Italian.
Only six of the 28 players on the roster played for the club in the North American Soccer League last season before making the jump to MLS: Camara, goalkeepers Greg Sutton of Hamilton and Evan Bush, midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic and forwards Eduardo Sebrango and Miguel Montano.
In previous years, the Impact always had a strong core of local, bilingual players like Nick De Santis, now in management, Mauro Biello, now one of Marsch’s assistants, or Patrick Leduc, who now covers the team for RDS television and La Presse. And they almost always had a bilingual coach.
The only real local product now is Bernier, who returned after nine years in Europe to play in MLS for his home team.
A groundswell of discontent was beginning to rise when Marsch pulled Bernier from the starting 11 only four games into the season even though he is one of the team’s most talented midfielders. It quieted somewhat when he wore the captain’s armband and scored a goal in a 2-0 win Saturday in Kansas City.
Bernier has not made waves about it.
“Of course when you don’t play it’s a bit disappointing, but you’ve got to believe in yourself and know that when you’re called upon you can help the team,” he said, adding he has been having fun helping his teammates with their French.
“A lot are taking French lessons. Maybe toward the end of the season some of them will do interviews or speak in French, but I did tell them that if they start talking French, I’ll stop talking English to them because I’ve been making life too easy for them.”
He said soccer is an international game and moving to different countries means picking up new languages. He knows some Danish from spending most of his career there.
“The Scandinavian countries are good in English, but if you go to France, Italy or Spain, they won’t speak to you in English,” he said. “You have to learn. You go abroad for the football but you also have to come out with some culture from where you went, and the language.”
That is the approach Impact fullback Jeb Brovsky has taken. He often Tweets in French, mostly a combination of words he has picked up.
“It’s what you make it,” the Lakewood, Colo., native said. “If you want to get involved, learn some French and try new cuisine and stuff, it’s exciting.
“The character and history of the city is amazing. I can’t speak French yet but I’m learning.”