As Marco Schallibaum met with the Montreal media for the first time on Tuesday it became clear why his predecessor as Impact coach Jesse Marsch never stood a chance.
Schallibaum, named coach of the second-year Major League Soccer club on Monday, answered questions in English and French and could have fielded more in Italian or German had any been asked of the 50-year from Switzerland.
The Zurich native came up as a player and coach in European soccer, and is a thoroughly European person. And that is the style the Impact, from president Joey Saputo to sporting director Nick De Santis, wants to lead the team.
“We always said we wanted to get a European,” said Saputo. “Getting into MLS, we were told that it’s different, that you need to have American experience, so that’s what we went for.
”We moved away from what we really believed.“
Marsch, a Wisconsin native in his first head coaching job, took the expansion team to a respectable 13-15-6 record but left at the end of the season over what both he and management said were philosophical differences.
They started the campaign with a mostly North American line-up playing a heavy running game, but during the season management brought in a succession of veteran players from Italy and Switzerland that changed the chemistry on and off the pitch.
They included former Italian national team defender Alessandro Nesta and the team’s first designated player Marco Di Vaio.
Saputo said that is what he and the club’s fans wanted, and now he hopes he has the coach to perfect that style.
Schallibaum signed a one-year contract with an option year that will kick in automatically if the Impact make the playoffs.
Known as a hard-nosed defender in his 15 seasons as a player in Switzerland, where he earned 31 national team caps, he became a vocal, emotional coach of a variety of clubs from 1995 to 2011.
“As a coach I like to attack,” he said. “To go after victories.
“It is better to have the ball than to chase after it. My style is more offence than defence.”
A knock on him was that he couldn’t seem to hold onto jobs for very long, moving for team to team every year or so, but he said he spent four years with Young Boys Bern and would likely still be with FC Lugano had the team not changed presidents while the squad was battling for a championship.
Nearly all coaches brought in from Europe have struggled in MLS, but Schallibaum said it shouldn’t make a difference because “soccer is soccer” no matter where it’s played.
Toronto FC also went to the European game to find a new manager on Tuesday when they named Queens Park Rangers defender Ryan Nelsen as coach, although he is a New Zealander.
Saputo felt a European would bring credibility both to the locker-room and the fans.
“We’re a very European-type city,” he said. “We’re different from Toronto and the American cities.
“The culture is different. Our fans didn’t accept that we brought in so many American players. They wanted to see European and South American players. When we talk about the philosophies not being the same, that’s what it was.”
That said, it was important that the new coach not be Italian either.
Saputo, De Santis and several other Impact employees are Canadians of Italian descent and the squad has former Italian league players Nesta, Di Vaio, Matteo Ferrari, Nelson Rivas and Andrea Pisanu. There are also former Swiss league players Felipe Martins and Dennis Iapichino, who both speak Italian and who played under Schallibaum at Lugano.
“We got six or seven CVs from Italian coaches and we said we had to be careful,” said Saputo. “We didn’t want to alienate certain American or Canadian players and give too much importance to the Italian players.”
The club’s long term goal is to continue to bring over experienced Europeans and blend them with local players from its academy and some U.S. players.
Saputo said Schallibaum has the know-how to do that, as well as help develop local coaches. He agreed to keep on Montreal native Mauro Biello as an assistant coach and add Philippe Eullaffroy, who will remain director of the academy as well as be an assisant coach. Mike Sorber and Denis Hamlett remain on the staff.
Saputo said the team will speak French to the local media and English in the locker-room and on the field, but Schallibaum’s versatility with languages will help in one-on-one discussions with players.
The club hopes the veteran manager can find an answer to the Impact’s struggle to win games away from home, where they repeated wasted leads by conceding late goals. They were 10-4-3 at home, but 2-12-3 away.
“Whether it was the message or tactics, there were questions to be answered,” De Santis said. “A lot had to do with identity.
“At home, we new who we were. We dictated play. On the road, where it’s more difficult and the other team has the pressure to play, that’s where I felt there wasn’t a clear message of who we were.”
Saputo said the team would not seek a second designated player before the 2013 campaign. The club is close to the salary cap with 23 players under contract and with bodies to add from the academy and the MLS SuperDraft. They may look at a DP during the summer transfer window, however.
The Impact hope the need for a capable winger will be filled with Pisanu, who played in a pair of exhibition games in Italy after the MLS season. He is on loan for a year from Di Vaio’s old club Bologna.
Schallibaum watched the two Italian games and also saw video of some of the Impact’s league matches during the hiring process.
“It is a team with a lot of quality,” he said. “I’m ready for the challenge and I’m ready to be here for a long time.”