In Patrice Bernier, Montreal Impact have found their defensive - and offensive - focal point

MONTREAL – Uncompromising in defense, ruthlessly effective on attack: Patrice Bernier has been the Montreal Impact’s fulcrum so far in 2013.

The Brossard, Québec, native’s league-leading three assists in four games are already an extraordinary reflection of his importance to the Impact, but consider this: All three are game-winning assists. And he’s arguably been the team’s man of the match each time out this season, leading Montreal to a 4-0-0 record.

So it's startling to think that, 12 months ago, Bernier was about to head into a downward spiral.

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“At this stage last year, I’d played the fourth game of the season against New York, and then I stopped playing for a while,” the 33-year-old recalled as he faced the media on Tuesday. “Now, I’ve played the fourth game, and my play’s being better recognized.”

Bernier’s first four games of 2012 were an adjustment period as he accustomed himself to MLS after eight seasons spent in Norway, Germany and Denmark. In that fourth game, though he was arguably one of the best players on the field, the Impact suffered a 5-2 drubbing by the Red Bulls.

Next time out, a 1-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, Bernier didn’t play. It marked the beginning of an inexplicable eight-game stretch during which he was on the field for just 107 minutes.

Then things changed. Bernier – always more at home in a three-man central midfield – reclaimed a starting spot as then-head coach Jesse Marsch switched to a 4-2-3-1. By May, he’d joined Felipe and Collen Warner in the center of the park, and the Impact were suddenly a different team.

“I just waited for my time, and my time has come,” Bernier told local TV station TVA Sports at the time.

Goals and assists started to come, too. Bernier started his individual contribution on May 26 on the road against the Colorado Rapids, scoring a goal and providing an assist in a late 3-2 loss. Nine goals and eight assists later, he was the team MVP for 2012 and a player no coach would dare omit from his plans coming into 2013.

This year, the Impact still have a three-man midfield working, though it’s inverted in more of a 4-1-4-1, with Bernier shielding the defense and often starting the counter. Sporting director Nick De Santis, who had actually wanted to see him play in that position for a while, now sees head coach Marco Schälibaum’s decision as a turning point in the Impact’s – and Bernier’s – fortunes.

“First and foremost, that position could extend his career, and with his experience and savvy, he sees what’s going on in front of him even from further back,” De Santis said. “The defenders know that they can give him the ball at any time, and the players up top know how he anticipates the play and starts new moves right away.”

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For now, everything seems to start with Bernier. The Impact No. 8 is making the opposition grasp what Montreal fans have known for a while now: His passing range ranks among the best in MLS.

Montreal’s transition play has already put Seattle, Portland, Toronto and New York to the sword, in large part because of Bernier. Schällibaum insisted at the beginning of training camp that he needed someone in front of the defense whom he could fully trust, and a lynchpin that would become a quick-fire link between both phases of play.

“I know that when the coach got here, the first thing he learned was that, because of how athletic the league is, we needed to play quickly,” Bernier said. “If the ball moves quickly, you get knocked around less. As of now, the way we want to play is not exactly how we ultimately want to play, but we’re playing the ball really quickly forward.”

Quickly, and uncompromisingly. It’s a role Bernier’s earned, and – quite clearly – one he was meant to play.