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Impact look to be contenders under new coach in second MLS season

MONTREAL – Doing better than expected as an energetic expansion team won’t be enough for the Montreal Impact in their second Major League Soccer season.

They want to contend for a championship now.

And maybe they have to win now, considering their marquee veterans from Italy’s Serie-A, Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta, are on the far side of 35 and nearing retirement.

“We have high profile players who could be in their last year and who are used to winning,” said midfielder and local fan favourite Patrice Bernier. “They set the tone.

“I’m from here and I want to win to because it would be great to win at home. I think everybody believes 2013 could be a very good year because next year you don’t know what the personnel’s going to be like.”

Twenty players are back from last season. While the roster looks much the same as the one that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 12-16-6 record, there have been some key changes.

It starts with new coach Marco Schallibaum, a multilingual veteran of Switzerland’s top league.

The 50-year-old replaces American Jesse Marsch, a first-year head coach who left the team citing philosophical differences with management.

Schallibaum’s background, experience and communication skills on a team with seven Italian speakers should appease veterans like Di Vaio and Nesta, who favour a European ball-control game.

Brazilian midfelder Felipe Martins and Swiss defender Dennis Iapichino played under Schallibaum in the Swiss league before joining the Impact and speak highly of his passion and leadership.

So does American midfielder and captain Davy Arnaud.

“The last six months with everything that happened wasn’t an easy situation for the club, and he’s come into maybe not an ideal situation, but he’s done a great job,” said Arnaud. “The players have responded well to him and he’s responded well to us.”

The key addition to the roster is 31-year-old midfielder Andrea Pisanu, Di Vaio’s former teammate at Bologna, who brings much-needed skill and vision on the right wing.

Another factor that should help is that the team has been together from the start of training camp. Last year, players were in and out all season.

They are looking to improve on a woeful 2-12-3 away record and to sharpen their defence, especially late in games and more especially on set piece plays.

The Impact used a 10-4-3 home record to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot until late in their inaugural MLS campaign.

Arnaud said the new team got behind the eight ball early last season with a 1-5-2 record while playing six of its first eight games on the road. Their schedule is more balanced this season, despite starting with road games Saturday in Seattle and a week later in Portland.

“We didn’t start out well on the road and maybe that kind of beat up our confidence a bit,” said Arnaud. “We were very good at home.

“But now we have a chance to go on the road to two of the toughest places in the league right from the start of the season, to make a statement about how we want to be on the road. It will be a great test for us.”

The Impact allowed the fifth most goals in the league last season with 51 and tied with Toronto for the most conceded in the final 15 minutes of games with 16.

They hope better conditioning under Schallibaum and more attention to detail will cut that number.

The new coach places a little more accent on the attack, but doesn’t appear to have changed the starting 11 much.

Going off the lineup used in their final pre-season game while winning the Disney Pro Soccer Classic, and from practice this week, Pisanu may be the only new face.

Troy Perkins, acquired late last season, is the goalkeeper, with Nesta and Matteo Ferrari in the central defence, Hassoun Camara at right back and Jeb Brovsky at left back.

Bernier has been moved back as the lone defensive midfielder, with Justin Mapp on the left, Pisanu on the right and Felipe and Arnaud in the middle. Di Vaio remains the striker.

That would make a substitute of Collen Warner, a starting midfielder last year.

With Pisanu, they hope to time their attacks better. Last season, Di Vaio was open often, but was called offside repeatedly as passes arrived late.

He had five goals in 17 games after joining the team in June, but many more are expected with a full camp under his belt.

Nesta, who turns 37 on March 19, also looks fresher.

He told the team’s website that mentally he fells “very good.”

“Sometimes I feel pain in my knee, my back. This is maybe my last season and I want the best,” he said.

Bernier led the team with nine goals, including six-for-six on penalties, and eight assists last season. But the 33-year-old from Brossard, Que., will have a more defensive role this year.

“Now I have to control the play from a little deeper,” said Bernier. “It’s about the same, but I won’t get to go forward as much.

“You have to be more like a big brother to everyone else, taking care of everything. I don’t know if it’ll be for the whole season, but so far it looks like I have to play there because they’re looking for someone that doesn’t lose the ball. So far it’s OK. But of course, I would enjoy more freedom to go forward.”

The Impact also added Argentine midfielder Andres Romero late in camp, but he won’t be ready to play for at least two weeks.

The team has amassed 11 international roster spots for the season and so far has filled only nine, so more players may be added. Di Vaio is the lone designated player, and the team will wait for the summer transfer window to open before it considers adding another.

Extra height at forward and a natural left winger would likely be on the shopping list.

Other returning players include forwards Andrew Wenger and Sanna Nyassi, midfielders Sinisa Ubiparapovic and Calum Mallace and defender Zarek Valentin.

Oft-injured Colombian central defender Nelson Rivas remains, but he spent camp riding a stationary bike.

Once the roster was settled in the second half of last season, the Impact began to look something like contenders. They ran off a five-game winning streak in late July and August that included victories over top clubs New York and San Jose, only to fall out of the playoff race with road losses in Columbus and Chicago.

“This year, you have in the back of your mind that if we play like we did last August, we could do special things this season,” said Bernier.