Commentary

MLS 2012 preview: Montreal Impact

Updated: March 8, 2012, 1:59 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

2011 record and finish: N/A, expansion team

Additions: D Nelson Rivas; GK Evan Bush; M Sinisa Ubiparipovic; M Hassoun Camara; D Jeb Brovsky; D Bobby Burling; D Josh Gardner; M Justin Mapp; M Sanna Nyassi; D James Riley; M Collen Warner; D Zarek Valentin; F Justin Braun; M Gerson Mayen; D Tyson Wahl; M Bryan Arguez; M Davy Arnaud; GK Donovan Ricketts; M Ian Westlake; M Miguel Montano; GK Greg Sutton; M Patrice Bernier; M Felipe Martins; D/M/F Andrew Wenger; M Calum Mallace; M Evan James; F Aaron Schoenfeld; F Steven Miller; F Carl Haworth; D Geinier Garcia; D Shavar Thomas

Losses: N/A

Key questions facing this team

1. Will they be competitive?

Expansion teams are not too different from the first men who tried to fly. They prepare as best as they can and are full of noble intentions, but for the most part they crash and burn. Of the eight expansion teams that have joined MLS since 2005, just two avoided finishing their inaugural seasons last or second-to-last in their division. (Four teams placed last and two second-to-last, of which one did so only because it had another expansion team below it.) Just one, the 2009 Seattle Sounders, made the playoffs. "We're all aware that we're in for a difficult year and that it's going to take a big commitment from everybody to be successful," head coach Jesse Marsch conceded. "But I think we have a good group of young men here and that there's a lot of understanding of how the league works."

2. Will a defensive philosophy pay off?

Marsch, a protégé of defensive-minded former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, understands that in a physical league like MLS, the quickest route to relevance involves employing a scrappy, cynical style that emphasizes results over style. "I think there will be an emphasis on how we defend and how we make it hard on the other team because we know the fewer goals we give up, the better chance that gives us for success," Marsch said. "Our starting point is going to be: How hard are we to play against?" But without the "liberty" of fielding flair players, as Marsch puts it, the Impact might not produce many goals. And if the defense doesn't hold up as he expects it to, this plan could backfire.

3. Did they get the mix right?

Marsch has assembled a cast of promising young players -- Justin Braun, Collen Warner, Zarek Valentin, Sanna Nyassi -- and league veterans -- Davy Arnaud, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Tyson Wahl, Justin Mapp, Shavar Thomas -- but was very conscious about sourcing the bulk of his team from within the league itself. "We value MLS experience because the adjustment process from players coming from the outside can often be up to a year, if not longer," said Marsch, himself a veteran of more than 300 MLS games. The hope is this will offer a shortcut to results, but did the Impact miss a chance to attract fresh talent from abroad like the Sounders did in 2009?

Biggest X factor: Avoiding mistakes

"What you see often in expansion teams is that they make bad mistakes," Marsch said. Consequently, he and the front office have tried to staff his team with as much experience as possible in goal, defense and central midfield. With a strong, seasoned core, the Impact hope to avoid giving away even more chances than a first-year team likely already will surrender.

[+] EnlargeJustin Braun
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesJustin Braun, formerly of Chivas USA, is one of MLS's most promising strikers, and his forward play (17 goals in the past two seasons) will be key to the Impact's fortunes.

Breakout player to watch: Justin Braun

The Impact have returned veteran Dynamo and U.S. striker Brian Ching to Houston after picking him against his will in the expansion draft. That leaves Montreal with just one striker with any sort of MLS track record: Braun. A second striker -- possibly a designated player -- is expected to be added soon, but it stands to reason that Braun, who scored 17 goals over the past two seasons as one of the league's most promising young strikers, will play a major role regardless. Look for him to break through the double-digit scoring barrier in 2012.

Outlook

Predicting how expansion teams will do is tricky, yet it's safe to say that Seattle's maiden-season push into the playoffs was very much an aberration. The Impact likely will be satisfied just to be respectable this season and not take too many bad losses. Working in their favor: The Eastern Conference is terrible.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.