The Montreal Impact are ready to begin a new life in Major League Soccer.
A powerful club in lower leagues for 18 years, the Impact are now a expansion team in MLS preparing for their inaugural regular season game on Saturday against the Whitecaps in Vancouver (TSN, 6 p.m. ET).
The league's 19th franchise, and third based in Canada after Toronto FC and Vancouver, anticipates a crowd in excess of 50,000 for its home opener March 17 against the Chicago Fire at Olympic Stadium. The Impact will play their first five home games indoors at the Big O before moving into an expanded 20,341-seat Saputo Stadium on June 16.
Owner/president Joey Saputo has had the team's marketing team in high gear for weeks, hoping to make his club an instant success on the field and in the seats. Season ticket sales have been slower than expected at about 7,500, but the club reports strong single game sales.
”There's a lot of buzz,” team captain Davy Arnaud said this week. ”You see it in the amount of people out watching at training and the media here and the advertising around. You notice that as a player. I think the city is going to embrace the team and it's going to be fun.”
The Impact won three championships in lower circuits and consistently led their leagues in attendance, but MLS is a whole new world. It features a much quicker pace, better players and a chance to see some older international stars like David Beckham with Los Angeles and Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls.
Six holdovers are back from the Impact squad that played out a dismal final campaign in the North American Soccer League last season — forwards Eduardo Sebrango and Miguel Montano, midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic, defender Hassoun Camara and goalkeepers Greg Sutton and Evan Bush.
The squad was mostly put together by coach Jesse Marsch and his staff from the league expansion and supplemental drafts, trades with other MLS clubs and free agent signings. Former Italian international Matteo Ferrari is one of those free agent acquisitions. He approached the Impact unexpectedly while the team brass was in Europe and will now likely start in the central defence.
It is a club Arnaud expects to compete for a playoff spot from the start.
”We know it's going to be tough,” the former Kansas City midfielder said. ”We don't have the luxury of having guys who have been together for five or six years.
”We've been together seven weeks. You hear a lot of media say that not a lot is expected of expansion teams, but we have to approach it like every time we're out there, we're there to compete and win games. With the talented group we have, I don't see any reason why we can't be in the playoffs come the end of the year.”
The Impact may not have the depth, particularly at striker, to do that well in the first year, but Marsch has drawn praise around the league for his approach to team building, which placed a heavy focus on hard-working players with MLS experience.
It helped that they were the only team added this season, while Vancouver joined along with Portland in 2011 and had to split the players available in the expansion draft. The Whitecaps finished last in the west at 6-18-10.
Getting off to a quick start will be difficult as the Impact play eight of their first 11 games on the road while the stadium is completed. They play seven of 10 games in July and August a home.
Marsch knows who his starting 11 will be in Vancouver, but won't reveal the names until just before the game. He'll likely use a traditional 4-4-2 set-up, but who will be in it is unclear.
Donovan Ricketts, a former MLS goalkeeper of the year with the league champion L.A. Galaxy, will probably start, as well as Ferrari and midfielders Arnaud, veteran Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Que., and 21-year-old Brazlian Felipe Martins.
MLS veteran Tyson Wahl may start at centre or at left fullback, with either 20-year-old Zarek Valentin or former Whitecap Jeb Brovsky at right back. Jamaican veteran Shavar Thomas is a possibility at centre back. A fourth midfielder could be Ubiparipovic, ex-Seattle Sounder Lamar Neagle or MLS veteran Justin Mapp.
Up front is the big question. The 38-year-old Cuban-born Canadian Sebrango is a strong candidate, as is recently acquired former Sounder Mike Fucito, or six-foot-three Justin Braun, formerly of Chivas USA. Or perhaps they can use Andrew Wenger, an aggressive striker picked first overall in the MLS SuperDraft.
Italian forward Bernardo Corradi is in camp, but isn't signed and is still working on conditioning after being a late invitee.
”He's brought a lot of youthful energy for a 35-year-old,” Marsch said of Corradi. ”You can see his intentions on being here are pretty honest and straightforward.
”Both him and Matteo coming here on trial says a lot to start with.”
A missing piece thus far is that big, proven striker that teams like Vancouver have with Sebastien Le Toux or Eric Hassli or Toronto with Danny Koevermans.
Attempts to sign a first designated player (one paid more than the salary cap maximum of $350,000) centred on aging European star forwards like Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet, but so far they have yet to get a name on a contract. Now, they may not have a chance at one until the next international transfer window opens in the summer.
Still, Arnaud believes the Impact have enough talent to get their share of goals,
”We didn't score a ton of goals this pre-season, but we scored goals,” he said. ”We created a lot of chances.
”That's the important thing, especially in the pre-season when not everyone is sharp. We have quite a few guys that can score goals.”
At the recent Disney Pro Soccer Classic pre-season tournament in Orlando, Fla., the Impact went 1-1-2 and were outscored 5-3. It included a tournament-opening 3-0 loss to much-improved Vancouver, although two of those goals were in the second half with mostly substitutes on the field.
A coup for the club was landing Bernier, a slick midfielder lured home after nine years in Europe. Bernier began his pro career with the Impact in the early 2000s. He's a French-speaking local product who handles a lot of the media and public relations duties.
But mostly, he's a good player and part of the squad's leadership group.
”I think everyone's about fed up with the pre-season and they're ready to play a match that counts in the standings,” Bernier said. ”Now we want to show we have a good team and come back with the best result we can.”