The spotlight is on Andrew Wenger as the Montreal Impact begin their third Major League Soccer regular season with a visit to FC Dallas on Saturday.
The first overall pick in the 2012 SuperDraft is expected to start at striker in place of star scorer Marco DiVaio, who is suspended for the opening three games.
“Marco scored 20 goals last year, we all know that, so I don’t think it’s going to land on any one guy to replace him,” Wenger said this week. “I’ll do my best to contribute, but it’ll be on every player on the team to contribute to a larger factor.”
DiVaio and midfielder Andres Romero were each suspended three games for their part in a melee that erupted late in their 3-0 playoff loss to the Houston Dynamo last season.
And it could be a makeshift lineup on the field with their new captain Patrice Bernier and fullback Jeb Brovsky likely limited to substitute duty, if they play at all, as they recover from injuries.
A possible lineup used in training this week had four players who were mainly substitutes last season, plus their first round draft pick Erik Miller, on the field.
The suspensions and injuries and the fact that they had few off-season signings were why many observers predicted the Impact will take a step back after finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and earning their first MLS playoff berth last season.
Even the MLS website had them rated last in the 19-team league in their pre-season power rankings.
The Impact hope to show they can do just as well or better.
Former Chicago Fire manager Frank Klopas, who replaced the fiery Marco Schallibaum as head coach, will make his Impact debut in Dallas.
The former MLS and Greek league player brings a blend of the European experience and a knowledge of how games are won in the more physical North American league.
Klopas’ goal is to allow at least 10 fewer goals than the sometimes messy 49 they conceded in 34 games last season.
His influence was felt at training camp, where the Impact failed to defend their Disney Pro-Classic trophy but put a lot of time into conditioning.
He hopes to give more minutes to more players to keep the team fresh throughout the campaign. Schallibaum’s squad last season dominated MLS in the first half, but went 1-6-1 down the stretch.
“With the amount of travel we do in this league, it’s not easy,” said Klopas. “We play a lot of games, that’s why you need depth. We have to be able to rely on everybody.”
The biggest challenge will be in the central defence, where former Italian giant Alessandro Nesta retired as a player but stayed with the club to do video analysis.
Spaniard Adrian Lopez, who tore an ACL after one game when he joined the club in August, is a month away from resuming full training. And Colombian Nelson Rivas, whose only game in 2013 was the playoff loss in which he was ejected for two yellow cards, has a hamstring injury.
That leaves their defence leader Matteo Ferreri as the only healthy regular in the middle. It appears lanky fullback Hassoun Camara will move inside to start the season.
The Impact also traded midfielder and former captain Davy Arnaud to D.C. United and attackers Andrea Pisanu and Daniele Paponi were let go.
It appeared that 21-year-old Uruguayan forward Santiago Gonzalez would be their lone signing, but midway through camp they got a boost with the arrival of former New York Red Bulls left back Heath Pearce.
Pearce is coming off hip surgery in July, but is close to match fitness. His arrival could bump Brovsky to right back and make Camara a full time centre back.
The Impact also hope that having midfielder Hernan Bernardello with the team from the start of camp will make him more effective than he was after joining the team last summer.
The Argentine is the team’s second designated player after DiVaio. He plays a holding midfield role, just in front of the defence. When Bernier returns, they are expected to be the team’s engine, launching attacks from their back position.
Bernardello will also allow Bernier, a clever passer, to move up more to support the attack.
They hope that will spur Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins, perhaps their best player in 2012, after a weak campaign under Schallibaum.
Wenger feels getting more players involved will help the whole team.
He said DiVaio was running away with the scoring title last season until teams realized you only needed to cover him tightly to shut down the Montreal attack.
“If we can have a more balanced attack, that would be important,” he said.
Collin Warner, who is to replace Bernier for the opener, is another who may get more playing time under Klopas.
“There’s a little more direction on where players are supposed to find each other in different holes and pockets on the field,” said Warner. “That’s a positive for me, being a midfielder.
“The overall style is a bit quicker, more one and two-touch, so that’s good.”
Whether it translates into more points remains to be seen. Last season, the Impact opened with surprise wins at Seattle and Portland and rode that to a big first half.
“Road games test morale and character,” said Bernier. “Marco won’t be here for three games, but a team doesn’t win with one player.
“He’s a very important piece up front, but guys have to seize the opportunity.”