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Impact buoyed by road wins heading into home opener against Toronto FC

03/14/2013 05:17 EDT | Updated 05/14/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - What a difference a year has made for the Montreal Impact.

The second-year Major League Soccer club opened the season with victories in Seattle and Portland, which matched the their total of away wins as an expansion club in 2012.

It put them in first place in the Eastern Conference and tied them for first overall with the Western Conference-leading Vancouver Whitecaps.

"It couldn't be more encouraging, especially (winning) in those two places," defender Jeb Brovsky said Thursday. "It's hard even to get a tie there, never mind three points.

"We're confident, but we're not thinking we've made it. We don't think we're close to where we should be and we're still pushing to be the best team in the league."

The Impact started last season 1-5-2 and didn't win their first road game until they shut out Kansas City 2-0 in their 10th game on May 5.

But they shocked a crowd of 39,000 in Seattle by taking the lead on Davy Arnaud's goal and holding off a spirited Sounders attack, then building a lead through Hassoun Camara and Felipe Martins and holding on for a 2-1 decision in Portland.

Now they hope to make it three wins in a row at their home opener on Saturday at Olympic Stadium against Toronto FC, another Canadian-based club feeling upbeat after a 2-1 home win over Sporting Kansas City.

"Obviously, we have confidence in ourselves right now but it's not cockiness," added Brovsky. "No one's head is getting too big.

"We know we have a duty on Saturday and a tough team coming in. They're also on a high with a big win at home. But we know with our fans behind us it might be a bit of a wind at our backs this time."

Montreal's first MLS victory was against Toronto last April 7, a 2-1 decision before 23,120 at the Big O.

As of Thursday, more than 34,000 tickets had been sold, including a few thousand to red-clad TFC supporters, for the match. Only 38,000 seats in the 55,000-seat stadium were put up for sale, so there is a good chance of a sell-out.

The clubs will play on a new artificial surface made for the Impact by Nexxfield, a company based in Blainville, Que., that players say feels closer to natural grass than their previous turf.

The Impact are to play their first two home games at the Big O before moving outdoors to 20,000-seat Saputo Stadium.

Montreal went 10-4-3 at home last season but 2-12-3 on the road, where loose defensive play late in games cost them repeatedly.

But with most of the same players back and with new coach Marco Schallibaum's European approach, the they are playing a calmer and more efficient game.

Still, even Schallibaum, a veteran coach and former defender from Switzerland, was impressed at returning from the west coast with two wins.

"I was optimistic because I know my team has a lot of quality inside the dressing room as well as on the field, but to make six points in Seattle and Portland is big points," he said. "You always think about getting the maximum but it's not always realistic. I felt it would be hard, but it was possible."

The back line of Italian veterans Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari flanked by fullbacks Camara and Brovsky shone as Seattle and Portland had the bulk of possession in the two matches.

And Patrice Bernier was a standout as the lone holding midfielder in Schallibaum's 4-1-4-1 system. It is a position the Brossard, Que., native isn't crazy about because it limits his chances to join in the attack, but he still was able to start the play that led to Felipe's goal in Portland.

"It's not a position for me, but I'm adapting," said Bernier. "It's tough because you don't get to go forward as I'd like to, but it's an important position.

"The coach gave me the responsibility to be in front of the defence and start off the play. So far, it's going well and we're winning. That's what you want first and foremost. After that, the little details can be fixed and we'll see if I'll be playing there all season."

The Impact were forced to play for counterattacks, and managed to get as many scoring chances as their opponents in both games.

"Coming out with six points? No," Bernier said of his expectations for the road trip. "We were hoping to come out with six, but maybe the best would have been four and for the league experts maybe one.

"But the fact is it's two wins, compared to last year when we had two wins the whole season."

Schallibaum follows the European practice of closing training to the media the day before games to keep his starting 11 and any tactical changes from prying eyes, so Friday's practice will be in secret.

It appears that Argentine newcomer Andres Romero, who came off the bench to set up a goal in his first minute of MLS action in Portland, will replace Andrea Pisanu on the right wing and that Sanna Nyassi will play the left side for a second week over Justin Mapp, who has a calf injury.

Felipe and Arnaud remain in the centre behind lone striker Marco Di Vaio.

Note — The three Canadian MLS clubs are a collective 5-1-0 and have yet to lose to a U.S. based team. Toronto's lone defeat was to Vancouver.

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