Three for Thursday: Why the perfect Montreal Impact are no fluke
There are no two ways about it: The Montreal Impact are easily the best team in MLS after four rounds of matches. At least we think so. They're 4-0-0 heading into Week 5 and sitting atop the Eastern Conference.
But some are asking the inevitable question of a team that didn't make the postseason last year: "Are the Impact for real?"
Short answer: Yes.
The Impact may not keep up a perfect record – no one can – especially given that not all teams will finish as poorly as Seattle, Portland, Toronto and New York did in their games against Monreal, but there are enough signs to tell that they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with throughout 2013. Here are three:
1) Patrice Bernier is playing MVP-level soccer – and he has the consistency to keep going.
GOAL: Bernier sets up Di Vaio with killer pass
The veteran midfielder's case for the Newcomer of the Year award was very strong last year once he returned from his early-season exile. He was a huge part of the Impact's barnstorming run in August, and has displayed remarkable consistency, both in 2012 and the first few games of 2013.
Though Davy Arnaud and other players certainly play big roles, Bernier is truly the hub of Montreal's efforts on the field. He can recover and hold the ball, create and will show up on the scoresheet thanks to his dependable penalty-taking (six for six in 2012, one for one in 2013, good for seven of his 10 MLS goals).
In short, Bernier has the numbers, the ability and the leadership to put together an MVP-caliber season, and that will see Montreal continue to be a force as the season rolls along.
2) The coach may have changed, but the team's core remained stable during the offseason.
Most MLS outfits, and soccer teams worldwide for that matter, do their wheeling and dealing in the offseason. But the Impact got a jump start this time around, lining up a big part of their core in midseason of 2012. The likes of Troy Perkins, Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta – much-improved in 2013 – were all acquired last summer.
It's tough to come into a new team and integrate immediately, and it's one of a few reasons the Impact couldn't quite get it together for a playoff push as last season rolled on. But the trade-off is that all the core players were there from Day 1. Sprinkle in a two smart signings from abroad – Andrés Romero and Andrea Pisanu have been positive contributors early – and you have a team with both depth and a strong spine.
The lack of upheaval on the playing roster has certainly contributed to Montreal's hot start, and it will continue to aid them as the Canadian Championship and possibly the CONCACAF Champions League, not to mention the long, hot travails of the summer put some of the players we haven't seen yet to the test.
3) It's not pretty, but it's effective.
Anatomy of a Goal: Impact's classic counter
Looking over the statistics from Montreal's early games doesn't indicate a dominant team – the Impact have been outshot and out-possessed in every game. One of the big keys to their early success has been a defense that has stepped up its game from 2012, whether it's Nesta's improved play or another knock-on effect of having a stable roster in preseason.
When you look closely though, you can see how effective Montreal's defense has been in forcing opponents to take low-percentage shots. Though some will certainly get through as time goes on, the numbers of blocked shots and shots off target that Montreal's opponents come away with is telli
On the other end, Montreal have been ruthless. They have a potent blend of speed and cunning, and have put more shots on target than each of their four opponents so far this year. Throw in a finisher the caliber of Di Vaio, who is rounding into form, and you have a varied attack that has the potential to score plenty of goals in 2013 even if they are seeing less of the ball than their opponents. And that is the hallmark of a very dangerous team.