The first half of the Montreal Impact's inaugural season in Major League Soccer had the flashes of promise and jarring setbacks one expects from an expansion team in any sport.
Now Montreal is looking to be a more consistent winner as it enters the second half of the regular season against D.C. United in what is expected to be extremely hot weather on Saturday night in Washington.
The Impact weren't horrible for an expansion side with a 5-9-3 record in their first 17 games, but they feel they could have been much better without defensive lapses at the wrong times in several games.
"What we've learned is that when we play like we can play, we can beat anyone in the league," captain Davy Arnaud said Friday. "I really believe that.
"We've let a lot of games slip away this year when we've been leading. We're still only two points out of a playoff spot now, but we're disappointed because we know we could be higher up the table. But I feel we've got the team that's capable of putting together a good second half of the season and getting to where we want to be."
The loss to Toronto on Wednesday night, which team president Joey Saputo wrote on Twitter was an "absolute disgrace," will likely bring lineup changes against Eastern Conference co-leader United (9-5-3), who are led by 2011 league MVP and Canadian international midfielder Dwayne De Rosario.
Coach Jesse Marsch said the final lineup hasn't been decided, but there is a possibility that Evan Bush will start in goal in place of veteran Donovan Ricketts, who has played every minute of every game thus far.
They will also be without veteran midfielder Patrice Bernier, who was suspended one game for a reckless tackle on Toronto's Ryan Johnson. Midfielder Justin Mapp, who missed the game to attend to a family matter, will return to the lineup.
Zarek Valentin may also move from right back to replace Hassoun Camara in the central defence, perhaps giving rookie Calum Mallace his first game action.
And designated player Marco Di Vaio, who made his debut against TFC, will be used off the bench as Sanna Nyassi starts at forward.
"We're going to have few fresh legs on the field and try to make it as hard as possible on D.C.," said Marsch.
Montreal also announced that central defender Nelson Rivas will miss 4-6 weeks with an abdominal injury. They are already without centre back Matteo Ferrari (thigh) for two more weeks.
The Impact are 1-7-1 on the road, and the lone draw was a 1-1 result at D.C. in April. United is 6-1-2 at home. They are coming off a 3-2 loss in New York last Sunday that ended a four-game winning streak.
That the Impact were able to earn a tie against D.C. and register home wins over top clubs like Seattle and Houston showed they can be good, just as blown leads like a 2-1 decision in Dallas or a 5-2 disaster against the New York Red Bulls illustrated vulnerability.
They have surrendered a league-worst 29 goals, but they've been decent on attack with 24 goals despite not having a single dominant goal-scorer.
When he gets to full fitness, it will be former Bologna star Di Vaio's job to become the offensive leader, but up to now scoring has been spread quite evenly. Bernardo Corradi, out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, leads with four goals, while Arnaud, Bernier, Andrew Wenger and Felipe Martins each have three and Mapp, Nyassi and Sinasa Ubiparipovic have two apiece.
It is a team that felt it could compete for a playoff spot from the start and Arnaud said that hasn't changed.
"You could tell in pre-season we had a good group and we said from Day One we didn't want to use the whole expansion team thing as an out," he said. "We still don't.
"We have a good enough team to compete every week and win games regularly."
Coming out of training camp, the Impact were an unknown quantity. Since then, they've worked out who the starting 11 would likely be with everyone healthy. And they've established themselves as a quick, hard-working team that is sometimes fragile at the back.
"The first half, soccer-wise and how we operate as a team, has come together in a good way, maybe better than I had hoped," said Marsch. "But the ability to understand how to mentally stay tuned in and deal with critical moments, so we can turn good performances into results, is behind where I thought it would be."
He said the key was "to be more of a team that doesn't give much away. We're all aware that we can't continue to let things slip away from us because now, halfway through the season, there's still a lot to be played. But you can't say that forever. Now you've got to figure out how to get results. Whatever it takes."
Last year, the Vancouver Whitecaps were 2-7-7 at the midpoint of their expansion season en route to a last-place 6-18-10 record, although they've since emerged as a contender and are third in the West. The other 2011 expansion team, the Portland Timbers, just missed the playoffs at 11-14-9. They are 4-4-6 this season.
D.C. signed midfielder Branko Boskovic to a new deal this week that saw the Montenegrin take a pay cut and lose his designated player status. They also picked up disgruntled forward Long Tan in a trade from the Whitecaps.Suggest a correction