By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (May 3, 2013) US Soccer Players - If there’s any excuse for not fully appreciating the stunning start to the 2013 season by the Montreal Impact, it might be that the league’s newest team conducts its business behind a sometimes impenetrable curtain of language.
Through no fault of their own, Montreal exists outside of the circling Major League Soccer spotlight. Not only is the team Canadian, a fact that sets it apart from all but two other teams, its unique in how fully another language - one spoken only in that particular corner of the MLS kingdom - envelops it. The lingua franca of the Montreal Impact (or, L’Impact de Montreal) is French. While the rest of the League debates, analyzes, and reviews in English and/or Spanish, the Impact remain out of the mainstream. Though the club makes sure to provide English coverage of the team to supplement the French, in Montreal the prevalence of French is a political issue.
The language barrier might not be so apparent, or differentiating, if it wasn’t for the individual barriers in place around the team’s head coach and biggest stars. Marco Schallibaum’s direction has the Impact in first place, with the best points per game number in the League. Yet, it’s likely most MLS fans have heard very little directly from the Swiss coach on his philosophy or attitude, a stark contrast to his fellow first-year MLS head coach, Jose Luis Sanchez Sola of Chivas USA. The man known as “El Chelis” is a font of information, duly translated from his native Spanish into English for the benefit of the MLS-loving masses.
Marco Di Vaio leads the Impacts in goals. The Italian’s skill in front of net is a major part of Montreal’s success this season. And yet he remains out of the limelight, with smaller share of the total attention than most of the League’s Designated Players. Di Vaio’s English language skills, whatever they might be, aren’t in evidence. Playing in Montreal means he doesn’t need them as much as he might in elsewhere. Di Vaio just scores goals, his role as a star figure in the League reduced to his contributions on the field.
There’s also Alessandro Nesta, another Italian and the anchor of the Impact defense. Nesta’s influence on the field is the full breadth of his profile in the League. Rarely, if ever, do his words filter through the dual layers of Italian and French to make it into the communal waters of the MLS new cycle. If Nesta has opinions, thoughts, or concerns - which he surely does and which are surely part of the coverage of the Impact in Montreal - they’re a mystery to rest of us.
There are plenty of stars sprinkled around MLS that don’t communicate in English. That fact makes them slightly less accessible than those that do, but it’s rare that a big name or important contributor isn’t part of the conversation through translation. Guillermo Barros Schelotto spent four years in Columbus leading the Crew to multiple trophies, his English never good enough for him to comfortably speak in the language of the country where he enjoyed so much success. He was hardly silent, as those covering the team naturally took his words in his native Spanish and disseminated them in English for the benefit of those interested.
It’s not that there’s one language standing between getting to know the key figures of the Montreal Impact, it’s that there’s two, or three, diluting the message a little bit each time and throwing a perceived cloak over the team. Montreal’s Continental flavor is exotic by MLS standards, and whether it’s fair or not, it makes them a mystery.
With a little effort, MLS fans outside of Quebec might know as much about the Montreal Impact - and understand the reasons for their success - as they do the other 18 teams. With a little effort, MLS fans outside of Quebec might have a better picture of what makes Marco Di Vaio tick, or how Alessandro Nesta views his role in the team. As it is, even with the team’s English-language coverage and efforts of English-language writers and bloggers, the Impact are a first-place team without a first-place profile.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and a little mystery can make things more interesting. The Impact’s dual-language existence adds to the tapestry that is Major League Soccer. There might not be another league in the world that has such a rich diversity of culture across its members teams, that mixes English, Spanish, and now French-speaking fan bases together in one great melting pot of soccer celebration. One of the selling points of the League is supreme lack of homogeneity. The Impact embody that reality. Their exotic Quebecois-plus-European elements make them unique, even within their own league.
As the season goes along, should the Impact remain frontrunners in the Eastern Conference and challenge for the Supporters Shield, more coverage will flow their way. It will still take some effort to tell the story, thanks to the natural barrier of language. The rest of MLS territory may never get to know Schallibaum, Di Vaio, Nesta, and others crucial to the Impact campaign as well as they do coaches and stars in other cities.
Maybe that’s unfortunate, or maybe it’s just another part of what makes MLS special.
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