07/08/2013 05:28 EDT | Updated 09/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Veteran Impact squad wastes no time climbing to top of Major League Soccer

MONTREAL - The new guys in Major League Soccer didn't take much time to get to the top.

Halfway through their second season in the league, the Montreal Impact lead the Eastern Conference with a league-best 9-4-4 record.

And although they have played fewer games than most clubs, their 31 goals also lead the 19-team league.

"You see a team that knows how to get points in this league," fullback Jeb Brovsky said Monday. "Last year, we gave up a few goals.

"The mental focus is what it takes. We've learned what it takes to win."

As an expansion team in 2012, Montreal went 5-9-3 through the first 17 games of the 34-game regular season. They ended up 12-16-6 for 42 points to finish out of the playoffs in seventh place in the East.

This year, they already have 31 points — a 13-point improvement from the halfway mark last year.

They have done it with most of the same players they had by the end of the 2012 campaign, but with new coach Marco Schallibaum replacing MLS rookie Jesse Marsch.

It seems the former Swiss international and veteran coach was just what a team led by older Italian stars needed to take the next step. Even if the fiery Schallibaum has already served three one-game suspensions.

"I see the team is motivated on the field and is progressing, it's all very positive," said Schallibaum.

So far, the 2013 campaign has been all about winning.

It started in the pre-season when they won the Disney Soccer Classic tournament in Orlando, Fla.

While running off victories in regular season play, they also won the Voyageurs Cup by beating Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Amway Canadian Championship.

The challenge will be to keep that pace up through the second half with opponents tightening defences to shut down league-leading scorer Marco Di Vaio, who has 11 goals. Also, the Impact are playing four additional games thanks to their qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League.

The team ended the first half in a mini-slump that saw them blow a lead to lose 4-3 at home to Colorado, then eke out ties with Toronto and Chivas USA, two of the league's lowest ranked clubs.

The question is whether it is a temporary slide or a sign they have already peaked.

"There's certainly been some wake-up calls and reality checks," said goalkeeper Troy Perkins. "That's to be expected.

"We're into July, halfway through the season. It's always like this. Good things will happen to the teams that can grind it out and stay the course. We look back and we have to understand we are a good team. In the first half, we've done great things. We should be able to do it again."

The season started with surprise wins in Seattle and Portland, so they matched their total of away victories in 2012 in the opening two games.

The Impact were winners through most of their 18 seasons in lower leagues before they joined MLS, so it is not a total surprise they were able to assemble a competitive squad in short order.

Most of the current team were brought together in their expansion year, including striker Di Vaio and AC Milan great Alessandro Nesta. Both will be 37 by the end of July.

There is a strong Italian accent with Nesta's central defence partner Matteo Ferrari and two newcomers, Di Vaio's former Bologna teammates Daniele Paponi and Andrea Pisanu.

But raised in Europe where soccer is a winter game, they will be tested in the summer heat.

"Certainly for the guys from Italy, this is a new thing for them," said Perkins. "They're in a for a rude awakening.

"When we play some teams from the south, it's going to be hot. You have to be willing to suffer through the pain to get the result."

Fullbacks Brovsky and Hassoun Camara and midfielders Patrice Bernier, Felipe Martins, Davy Arnaud, Justin Mapp, Sanna Nyassi and Collen Warner all started last season in Montreal and remain key figures on the squad.

Perkins was acquired late last season and has been an improvement in goal over the unhappy Donovan Ricketts.

Under Schallibaum, the 33-year-old Bernier has thrived despite being moved to a more defensive position, and Mapp, a frequent target of fans' invective last season, was a standout until sidelined by a recent injury (he's expected back for a game Saturday in New York).

Warner and Nyassi have seen their minutes drop from last season, but have played well mainly as substitutes.

The extra depth on the roster, including rookie midfielder Blake Smith and sophomore striker Andrew Wenger, has helped overcome some injuries.

"Overall, we're extremely happy with where we are," said sporting director Nick De Santis. "We know it's going to be very hard to stay in first pace.

"The objective from Day One was the make the playoffs. And, of course, it's important if we can continue getting points and stay up there as well."

With the international transfer window opening this week, De Santis said he would look for another "creative" offensive player and some long-term help on defence.

Nesta is not expected back next season, and central defender Nelson Rivas missed most of last season and has yet to play in 2013. De Santis wants him on the field soon, if only to test his ailing knees.