Breaking news: There are now 19 teams in Major League Soccer. If you didn't already know this, then you'll probably be especially interested in reading the answers to the three questions that I posed to Benzinho, the editor of Mount Royal Soccer, which is SB Nation's blog in support of the Montreal Impact.
B&RU: What are the expectations this year for the Montreal Impact? Should they be expected to compete for an MLS playoff spot right away as an expansion team? Or will just finishing above Toronto FC in the standings be good enough to call 2012 a success?
MtRS: Just to get things clear from the beginning , any reference positive or negative to Toronto FC doesn't really matter to any of the Montreal Impact fans and probably vice versa.
At first, a mix of doubt and uncertainty clouded the fan base during pre-season but the Orlando pre-season tournament gave some positives to the fans and media about some of the team's qualities and chemistry. The way the team played and the level of the maturity of its game was surprising so early in the season even though only 1 point was collected before the Montreal Impact's first win against Toronto FC. Add to that a potential Designated Player signing/announcement in May-June of this year and good vibes have been felt around the team.
There is the expansion team tag/excuse but the Montreal Impact fan is a soccer-educated fan and was able to recognize the quality in the group hence raising the expectation from not losing by 7 goals every game but by being in the playoff race by mid-summer. Being out early of the playoff race will be disappointing but if the team evolves the right way as it seems to do, fans will be more than happy.
Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins has played every minute for the Impact so far this year. When will his talent and international experience translate into results on the scoreboard?
Felipe Martins is a dilemma and not in a bad way. He is a holding midfielder in the role given to him but seems to be able to have a playmaking role in the center of the midfield with smart runs, decent passing and quick feet. Whomever he is partnered with (Patrice Bernier or Collen Warner), the importance came from the duo's capability to find gaps and open players with quick passing and smart combination with teammates. Felipe Martins seems more natural to go forward and be the extra man up front to create a numerical advantage and keep the opponent's busy. I think that Jesse Marsch finds him more important in the midfield are being able to control the flow of the game and distribute the ball quickly and efficiently. Let's not forget that Justin Mapp is also a player that likes to create plays even though he is more of a left midfielder/winger but also enjoys cutting to the middle.
Keeping a balanced technical midfield is important for the Montreal Impact and Felipe Martins is the center piece for now but I do expect him to be more offensive with more talented, quicker strikers that can make smart runs all game long.
The Impact's roster reads like a who's who of mediocre MLS players. Who do you see stepping up his game this year and making his former team regret the decision to let him go?
Even though the league is at 19 teams making the expansion draft more diluted, some interesting players were drafted plus some smart trades within the MLS. Still, this is not top-notch MLS All Star Game talent, but effective players if used within their strengths and a role that Jesse Marsch has concocted. All these factors are all embodied in a shell of team chemistry, playing hard and relentless teamwork to make it hard to the opposite team all game long.
Collen Warner did not have a bad showing at all against Real Salt Lake, a team that drafted him. Justin Mapp can make some damage against Philadelphia, his last team and he is probably the most technical player in the team but already did a good job against the Chicago Fire against whom Montreal earned its first MLS point. Sanna Nyassi will also a player to watch that is getting better when partnered with Serie A veteran, Bernardo Corradi.
Regrets? I don't see any but gaps for some teams early in the season: yes, some teams had to scramble to fill the gaps left by veterans for younger less experienced players to step up.
MtRS: With an '' even '' record of 2-2-2 (W-L-T) and an offensive potential that cannot be ignored, do you feel that D.C. United is playoff bound in an inconsistent Eastern Conference?
B&RU: United's 2-2-2 record is a bit deceiving. The only two losses came against the two defending regular season conference champions. United was cursed with a difficult early season schedule that saw the team struggle to gain its footing off the bat, but has since gone four games unbeaten. Had D.C. been blessed with the early schedule of, say, the Impact, the team's record probably wouldn't be quite so even. This group of players is playoff bound, and should compete for the No. 3 spot in the East. If United's designated players Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic finally get off the blocks, they could even compete for the MLS Cup.
Not so different than Jesse Marsch, Ben Olsen made the quick transitioning from playing to coaching, as he takes on his second year as the head coach. Did the man and player translate directly into the coach that he is becoming? Did you see a transition/change/evolution between Year 1 and Year 2?
United's definite improvement in the second year of the Ben Olsen era has been more due to the rebuilt roster than any noticeable improvement in Olsen's coaching abilities, but the team has found some chemistry and is going through a culture change, and Olsen is a big reason for that. United made the difficult decision to release its four longest tenured players this offseason, among others, to attempt to eradicate the culture of losing that had settled into the locker room at RFK Stadium the past few years. They've been replaced by a combination of role players and proven talents, and its showing on the field.
3. Nick DeLeon is getting a lot of attention and not just for his hair. A hot rookie that seems to be versatile: is there a specific influence within the team that is making him integrate the pros so well at such an early stage of his career?
Before turning pro, DeLeon shined at Louisville because he was used in a surprising fashion that took opposing teams by surprise. DeLeon was his team's chief creative attacking presence, but he did it from a wing position, not centrally. That experience has served him well at United. The hard-working midfielder has two goals and three assists already this season, contributing on both sides of the ball, as well as corner kicks. DeLeon has good speed, accurate passing ability, a perfect first touch, and a deadly shot. If he continues on this pace, he could run away with the Rookie Of The Year award.