New coach Schallibaum looks to make winners of second-year Impact

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MONTREAL - The European influence has been evident from new coach Marco Schallibaum at the Montreal Impact training camp.

The veteran coach and former defender from Switzerland has brought his own set of drills and ideas to the Major League Soccer club, said midfielder Patrice Bernier.

"It's been more like what I'm accustomed to in Europe," said Bernier, who played nine seasons across the Atlantic before returning to his hometown to join the Impact last season. "It's the way of thinking, especially playing quick, two-touch, and being available for each other.

"We also had a lot of running, but it's in function of what we do on the field, with short bursts and then some recuperation. We're working on the foundation we want to build for the whole season."

The drills are fast-paced, with quick exchanges of the ball. In one practice, the field was reduced to about 35 yards to work on making decisions in tight traffic.

He said he even invited a basketball coach in one day to have the players shoot some hoops and drive home the idea of defending without taking fouls.

"I like to do different things," said Schallibaum, who was impressed with the basketball skills of some of his players, notably fullback Jeb Brovsky.

"The main thing is to put in his ideas," added Bernier. "The coach doesn't know everybody.

"He's showing what he expects and, day to day, we're working on that."

The first days of camp on an indoor pitch at Marie Victorin College have focused on conditioning and sharpening reflexes and skills.

Installing a system of play and sorting out players' roles on the team will come when they leave Feb. 7 for an 18-day trip to Orlando, Fla., for the Disney Soccer Classic pre-season tournament.

Schallibaum hasn't worked out yet what formation the team will use. He also hasn't decided whether he will have one forward — like much of last year — or two.

"I have my ideas, but we're still getting the team ready," he said. "Ill give you that information when it's time.

"You have to go step by step. We'll go into another phase in Orlando when we start playing games."

European coaches do not have a history of success in MLS, but the Impact are unique in having a core of Italian league players and others with European experience who favour a creative, ball-control game.

And with their top stars in their mid-30s, like Bernier, Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio, the second-year MLS club wants to contend for a championship now.

Montreal will open the regular season March 2 in Seattle.

Bernier likes the team's chances, but wasn't about to predict a championship just yet. The Impact were seventh in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs last year under American Jesse Marsch.

"You don't know if you're going to have this (same) personnel in a year," he said. "You've got guys that might not be here next year. High-profile players.

"When you look at that, you want to maximize team potential. From what we offered at the end of last year, you tell yourself that in the home games, we can be a very good team in this league. But there are things that can be better, like playing away and allowing goals from set pieces.

"If you look at our personnel, you can say we can put more emphasis on being, I can't say the top team, but a successful team in a high position that can qualify for the playoffs."

The Impact went 10-4-3 at home last season, with big wins over some top clubs. But they were 2-12-3 on the road, where they wasted points regularly by allowing late goals, especially off set pieces like free kicks, corners and in one case, a throw-in.

Bernier said improving defence on set pieces will be key.

"In Europe, you're used to having one or two good teams on set pieces, but here it's more than half the teams," he said. "It's one of the little things we didn't do well."

He said MLS teams tend to have bigger, more athletic players at forward and in the central defence that are good at getting their heads on high balls.

"And you look at other North American sports, basketball mainly, and maybe people have better physical athletic ability in the air than other places," he said. "That's my opinion."

It will help that Montreal will have its team together from the start of camp after the mid-season changes that marked its expansion season.

There are still roster spots open, and team president Joey Saputo hinted last week that a new player from South America was on the way. Most of last year's team is back, with Italian midfielder Andrea Pisanu the notable newcomer.

Midfielder Davy Arnaud said the club is ready to battle the top teams.

"We showed last year we can do that," he said. "As players, we're not interested in just scraping by and getting into the playoffs.

"We showed we can play with the best teams in the league. Now have to do it consistently and find a way very early to understand what makes us good and what gets us wins and do it week in, week out."