The Montréal Impact's debut season in Major League Soccer has been quite a roller-coaster.
There have been record-breaking crowds at aging Olympic Stadium for games against Chicago and Los Angeles; and crowds in the low five digits at soccer-specific Saputo Stadium.
There have been big wins, most notably a 2-0 win at Kansas City and a 4-1 thrashing of Seattle on Saputo Stadium's re-opening night; and there have been big losses, including a 5-2 rout at New York and a 3-0 embarrassment at home to Toronto FC.
There have been big player signings, including former Italian stars Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta; and there have been concurrent departures of young Americans including Tyson Wahl, Justin Braun and Michael Fucito.
Impact manager Jesse Marsch has had to navigate all of these ups and downs while trying to instill a sense of cohesion in an expansion-year squad. It has not been easy, but Marsch learned the craft of management from one of the most level-headed men in American soccer: Bob Bradley.
Marsch met with a few reporters at the Impact's hotel Friday evening. As I listened to the Princeton alumnus talk, I could not help thinking how similar he sounded to Bradley. I'm pretty sure that isn't a coincidence.
Impact owner Joey Saputo has a track record of flamboyance and drama that dates back well before the club moved up to MLS. We'll see whether Marsch can continue to keep an even keel as the season evolves.
When you first took this job, with an expansion team, what were you trying to do in terms of building a first-year team? What were you focusing on?
I knew it was going to be important to have some MLS-experienced leadership, but I also knew that was going to be hard to get, because obviously every team values that. So the important guys to each team weren't going to be available in the expansion draft, and now making trades to get them wasn't going to be easy.
But I knew that I was trying to find a way to build that. And even with guys with whom I'd had relationships in the past - that includes both my coaching staff and from the player pool - people with whom I had common ideas, where we already understood each other.
Then - Montréal is a pretty sophisticated town in terms of the soccer that they understand. It's mostly because it's very multicultural. And it's a different multiculturalism from what it is in the States. There [in Montréal], if you're Italian, you're Italian. It's not like you have an Italian name and your mom cooks pasta.
You speak Italian, you hold all of the culture that your ancestors did in the old country. It's the same thing with the French, it's the same thing with the Portuguese, it's the same thing with all of the cultures there.
So there's a sophisticated soccer crowd. The fact that we have a nice stadium with a big field, and we have grass, I think it meant that with all of the things that I think are important in a team soccer-wise, it was going to be a good venue and a good place to put together something that included what my overall vision would be.
Then when you talk about MLS experience and leadership and everything else, the ability to go out and get Davy Arnaud, Donovan Ricketts, Shavar Thomas, these different guys.
And even Justin Mapp, I'll tell you that. Even though he's not a vocal leader kind of guy, his understanding of what games are like, and everything else, he has been a very good player for us.
Sometimes when coaches come into expansion teams, their focus is building strength down the middle or on defense first. You were under Bob Bradley, Preki, Bruce Arena...
Yeah. Bob, when he spoke to me, he mentioned the "spine of the team." So yeah, going out and getting Ricketts was because I knew having a good goalkeeper was going to be important. I did look at some of the pitfalls of previous expansion teams to try to address those, both personnel-wise and mentality-wise.
That part's still a bit hard - we lead the league in goals given up. So we're still trying to figure out how to come together, so that in critical moments we handle things better. That's taken time. But yeah, there's all of that there.
I look at it in two different elements: I look at it soccer-wise - what the tactics are like, how things fit together, the concepts on the field - and then there's the mentality, which is now understanding what this league's about, how to compete, how to grind out results, set pieces, and all that.
That's what MLS is. So combining the two is - I think we're ahead of where I thought we'd be soccer-wise, actually, and we have been for some time. It's the mentality and the grinding out of games and results that has been behind schedule, and the biggest challenge for our group.
How much did the manner in which you beat Columbus in your last game - coming back from 1-0 down at home to win 2-1 - improve the team in that respect?
There have been some positive signs. I would cite the game against Houston. We gave up a goal right at the end of the half, and then the whole message at halftime was "How mentally strong are we to recover and handle the second half the right way?" And we did.
Then we lost three games in a row that were tough. We had some injuries, we had a lot of games in a row. Then the fact that we went down against Columbus and our backs were against the wall, and we responded the way we did, I think was a real positive sign for our group - and actually sort of revitalized the belief in what we're doing.
Now it will get tested again.
How much of a challenge has it been for you as the manager - and as the person who is in charge of installing that spirit in the team - with all of the turnover that there has been in the roster from injuries, trades and new signings?
Every team goes through injuries, so that's not a huge interruption into what we've done. Sure, we miss [defenders] Nelson Rivas and Matteo Ferrari on the field, and [forward] Andrew Wenger.
The changes that have been made, I think within the group have been understood, and I've addressed them with the group, to say that this is what the business is. We try to make changes and go about it the right way, to make sure that we communicate with people the right way. And actually, right now I feel like our group is in a really good place.
Partly because of the result [last weekend], partly because of having [Alessandro] Nesta within our team. I think I underestimated what his presence within the team would bring in terms of energy and now sharpness in training and everything else. He's been great, and I think his presence within our group has been great.
How much have you spoken with Nesta about his adaptation to MLS and its rigors? I know he has spoken publicly about having talked to David Beckham about it.
We've talked about what games are like. He has seen a number of games now, and been there. It's funny, because Marco [Di Vaio] went through the same thing. He watched three games, and then he played in one, and he was like, "Whoa, this is more than I thouhht."
Which is a common response from a lot of different foreigners [who come to MLS], and especially Europeans that come here. But Marco has adapted pretty quickly, and I think he has shown that he's going to be a pretty good player in this league.
And even when you watch Alessandro train, his habits and his ideas, he's sharp and sophisticated and bright. Even when you talk to him about what's going on in a game, he's got a great mind.
It's a little different being a forward from being a center back. There will be a little bit of an adjustment period, but I really expect him to fit in almost seamlessly.
Foreign players who come to MLS talk a lot about the travel that is required, and not being prepared for it. As an American who played in MLS, what's your perspective on that? Does it maybe affect foreign players more than American players?
It's just part of the adaptation. It's not only the travel, it's the weather. They're not used to playing in the heat of the summer. So even when I talked to Matteo Ferrari about what his experiences have been, he said, "Yeah, I knew the travel, and I underestimated it a little bit. But the weather and the elevation and the heat have hit me in different ways than I expected."
I think Matteo has been pretty good for us this year, and most of our hard travel is out of the way. So I expect that how Marco deals with it in different moments, and now how Alessandro fits in, it will all be fairly seamless and smooth.
Has Nesta traveled with the team to Philadelphia?
No, Alessandro is not here.
When do you think he will make his debut?
We play New England on Wednesday, then we play in Houston [next] Saturday, then we play Lyon on the following Tuesday, then we play New York at home on the following Saturday. He has already told me that he has looked at the New York game and he has got that on his schedule, because there have been some things that happened with New York.
It's possible that he travels with us to Houston.
And you know what's funny? When you talk to him, here's a guy with such an accomplished career, and in every conversation we have, he must say this phrase five times: "I came here to win." So we'll talk about things, and at the end we'll go, "I came here to win."
You see why, when you're around different guys - whether it's [Hristo] Stoichkov or Claudio Suárez or Peter Nowak, the guys I've been around over the years - there's a reason why they're successful. They won't allow themselves to fail, and they only care about winning. And you see that with Alessandro. It's going to be great.
Have you talked to Peter Nowak at all since his dismissal from the Union?
Has he said anything that can be passed along?
As expected, he's not very happy. We're friends, and I just tried to support him and let him know that I'm there for him.
Is he still in the United States or has he gone back to Poland?
He's in Florida [where he has a home].
It quickly became clear that was all I was going to get about Nowak. I know it's not much, but I find it interesting that he's still in the U.S. I can't help thinking that he will resurface sooner or later.