Article by Nate Sulat
If history is any indication, the Montreal Impact is facing an uphill climb in its first MLS season.
With the exception of the Seattle Sounders – who made the MLS Cup playoffs and won the US Open Cup in 2009 – the seven teams that have entered the league since 2005 are a combined 48-121-53 in their maiden campaigns.
But the complications for the newest members of Major League Soccer’s newest team start well before they even reach the field.
There’s the Quebec winter, which bottomed out this past year at -24.1 degrees Celsius (a little below -11 Fahrenheit). There’s the adjustment to a new country, new taxes and a new healthcare system. And, of course, there’s the fact that most of the residents speak French as their first language.
“[The language] has been the hardest,” Impact defender Zarek Valentin said of his adjustment to life in Montreal. “Right when you enter off the border, when you drive over, [the signs go] immediately to French and kilometers.”
But the language barrier has come up against Valentin’s day-to-day life in other – less obvious but more disruptive – ways. Specifically, he says his biggest problem is getting food, whether it’s ordering from restaurants or buying groceries.
“You kind of have to look in the aisle [at the supermarket] to see what’s in it,” the 20-year-old defender said. “We buy salmon a lot, and I like to know if the skin of the salmon’s on just because it’s a lot easier to cook it if the skin is off. It’s tough to read that because it’s all in French.”
Adjusting to a new language seems to be challenging enough that it’s affected Montreal’s roster. Current Portland Timbers striker Mike Fucito joined the Impact this offseason in a trade from the Seattle Sounders. Once in Quebec, however, Fucito put in a trade request with the Impact that culminated in a move to the Rose City on April 20.
In an interview with MLSsoccer.com’s ExtraTime Radio on April 23, Fucito indicated that his short stay in La Belle Province was prompted in part by the language barrier. The Timbers declined a request to interview Fucito.
Fucito’s move to the Impact was not of his own making, but even for those who choose to be with the club, moving to Montreal can prove difficult.
“I moved to Canada thinking that it wasn’t going to be that much different, even with the language,” Impact head coach Jesse Marsch said. “It’s turned out to be a little bit more of an adjustment than I would have expected on a personal level… There was maybe a six-month period of adjustment – that also included the winter.”
Marsch’s adjustment period also included moving his family and getting his three children – aged 10, 8 and 4 – into school. His oldest, he says, is now in a bilingual program, while his youngest is enrolled in a French-only pre-school.
More importantly, he says his family is happy with their new home. And he feels that, with three staff members dedicated to player services – Marsch says most MLS teams have only one – the club has invested the resources necessary to make sure the squad will also be happy.
And though the language barrier presents some obstacles that are unique in MLS, Valentin says that the challenges that the city provides could also serve as preparation for potential forays into Europe.
“I haven’t used that [as a selling point yet],” Marsch said, before adding with a laugh, “it’s a European style culture, which people seem to like to hear.”
But the biggest selling point for both Marsch and Valentin seems to be adventure. Valentin is happy to be living in a city with taxis and a Metro, a sharp contrast to his native Lancaster, small town in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Since joining the Impact in the 2011 Expansion Draft, he’s been taking French lessons with Rosetta Stone, and hopes to be doing interviews in French by the end of the season.
Marsch, meanwhile, works with a professor twice a week. The benefits of being able to communicate with his team’s fan base in their own language are not lost on the coach. But, with due respect to the supporters, he’s not learning French for their benefit.
“I want to learn,” Marsch said. “I’ve done it because I like being here and I want to adjust… Everybody’s not going to like moving to a new country, or the language barrier. Not everybody’s going to respond to that. But there’s also a number of guys here, including myself, that think of it as a real bonus to the lifestyle, to trying something new.”
Temperatures in Montreal dropped to as low as -24.1 degrees Celsius this winter – a little below -11 Fahrenheit – with an average minimum temperature of -7.3 degrees (18.86 degrees F) from December to March. And the 2011/12 season wasn’t even particularly severe. According to Canada’s National Climate Data and Information Archive, monthly temperature averages were well above the 1971-2000 climate normals.