Last ride? Unless Marco Di Vaio has discovered the Fountain of Youth and become totally Preki-fied, it's hard to imagine he'll be as good this year as he was last year. That doesn't mean I'm not rooting for him, though – he's one of the few field players left in the world who's older than I am. Please do it for Generation X, Marco!
Replacing a legend: Alessandro Nesta is, by my reckoning, the best central defender of the "Back 4" era (which began in earnest in 1997). Even last year, when he was about 60 percent as mobile as he used to be, he was so much fun to watch – smart, disciplined, and two steps ahead of everybody else. They'll replace him, but they'll never replicate that. Expect the Montreal backline to scramble more (and maybe more effectively), but transition into advantage slower than they did in 2013.
Share the load: Getting back to point No. 1 above, if Di Vaio's not going to be a one-man wrecking crew again, then the Impact are going to need to find other reliable goalscoring options. They should work on that anyway, to be honest. Basically: they need the 2012 version of Felipe to show up this year. Badly.
Star Attraction: Marco Di Vaio
At times last year, it felt like Marco Schällibaum wanted his team to be one-dimensional, totally reliant upon Di Vaio's gifts and devoid of all other ideas. Even when things started going bad – really, really bad – down the stretch, there were precious few adjustments.
To Di Vaio's credit, he kept producing throughout, even when the tapes showed the same thing week after week after week after week. He's going to ride the offside line; he's going to drift to the back post when the Impact have possession in the attacking half; he's going to try to make his runs between the central defense and fullback (instead of between the central defenders, which is the default run for most strikers) when in transition; he's going to round the 'keeper if he can.
That'll still be the book in 2014, and probably "Plan A" for the Impact. Di Vaio himself can be a good Plan B, as he's a much better facilitator than given credit for. It remains to be seen, though, if the Impact are able to vary it up enough.
Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1
GK: Troy Perkins
RB: Jeb Brovsky
CD: Wandrille Lefèvre, Matteo Ferrari
LB: Hassoun Camara
DM: Patrice Bernier
CM: Hernán Bernardello
RM: Justin Mapp
AM: Felipe Martins
LM: Santiago González
FWD: Marco Di Vaio
Major Acquisition: Santiago González
If Felipe can't provide the secondary attacking spark, then it will probably have to be González. The young (21 years old) Uruguayan had a couple of caps with his country's youth national team, and led his club Sud América to promotion after the 2013 season.
And really, that's about all anybody knows about him unless you've spent a bunch of time down in Montevideo (try the steak!).
What I've gleaned from scouting reports and fuzzy preseason streams is that González moves well with the ball but can get stuck off of it sometimes, and pinches a little too much to be a natural in one of the wide spots in the 4-2-3-1. But just because he's not a natural doesn't mean he'll be ineffective – skill and confidence in the area is something that could very well translate.
And if it does, then the Impact will be in business.
SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“I stopped seeing the field as much last year, and I had no real explanation for what I was doing wrong to not be on the field. It was pretty stressful personally. Maybe, to my own fault, I should have gone to the coaching staff and said ‘What do I need to improve?’ This year, it seems different, and I think the coaches are making an initiative to come to the young players and let them know what they need to do better."
FANTASY PICK: Eric Miller ($4.5m / selected by 5.0 percent of teams) – If Camara starts the season at center back and Brovsky can't make it back from a knee injury to start the year, this rookie could be expedited into the game-day lineup right off the bat. Montreal conceded the third-most goals in the Eastern Conference in 2013, so Miller shouldn't be viewed as a weekly fantasy starter. However, he could be a low-cost option worthy of occupying a spot on your bench.
Players to watch: Blake Smith, Felipe Martins and Wandrille Lefèvre
A number of Montreal fans were unenthused by the Frank Klopas hiring, but I actually thought it was a shrewd move from the Impact braintrust. Klopas' Fire team was brilliant in transition over the final two-thirds of 2013, initiating attacks from deep and letting the more advanced midfielders and forwards interchange as necessary. It produced some very entertaining and effective soccer, and they only missed out on the playoffs by total goals.
So, in looking at this Montreal roster, I see one clear strength: The ability to initiate sweeping attacking moves from deep. Patrice Bernier and Hernán Bernardello will be the heart and brains of everything they do, and there are very, very few midfielders in MLS able to turn a won ball into a full-fledged attack as quickly and ruthlessly as they do.
The problem is that, with a somewhat piecemeal backline behind them, both guys may have to do a lot of pure defending and general back-foot play. Forcing them deeper and deeper will be the way to turn off the faucet against Montreal, and that's what teams will aim for.
Does that mean there's a ton of pressure on Felipe and, to a lesser extent, Justn Mapp, González and maybe even Blake Smith? Yup. It can't just be the Marco Show in 2014; it's got to be Marco & Friends, or there will be no playoffs in Quebec.