'13 Season Preview: Can Schallibaum guide Impact to playoffs?

As a general rule of thumb, expansion teams typically struggle in their first year of existence.

This wasn't exactly the case with the Montreal Impact in 2012.

The club started its inaugural campaign slowly, but picked it up later in the season, going on a nice five-game winning streak from the end of July through August.

The Impact won 12 matches last term, but missed the playoffs, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. Despite the relatively positive season, philosophical differences between head coach Jessie Marsch and club president Joey Saputo caused a rift and Marsch was shown the door.

Saputo simply felt his team was better than their record indicated: "We are not a seventh place team," he declared at the conclusion of the season.

Therefore, the head man brought in a different manager in Marco Schallibaum.

Schallibaum joined the club on January 7, 2013 and brings plenty of European managerial experience.

Prior to coming to North America, Schallibaum coached in the Swiss Super League for 10 years, leading FC Basel, BSC Young Boys, Servette, Sion, Schaffhausen and Bellinzona.

Most recently, Schallibaum led Lugano in 2010-2011 in the Swiss second division. His club won an impressive 19 games that season.

So with his extensive coaching resume en tow, the Switzerland native will have one major goal with the Impact in 2013 -- get the second-year franchise to the postseason.

Luckily for Schallibaum, many of the club's key pieces from 2012 are back in the fold.

Italian forward Marco Di Vaio will lead the attack in 2013. The 35-year-old striker became the Impact's first Designated Player on May 24, 2012 after signing from Italian side Bologna.

The Rome native is one of the most prolific goal scorers in Italian soccer history, scoring 142 goals in 342 Serie A matches with Lazio, Bari, Salernitana, Parma, Juventus, Genoa and Bologna.

He featured in 17 games with the Impact last term, scoring five goals and adding three assists. If the Impact are to make the playoffs this time around, Di Vaio will need to score more consistently.

Also in Montreal's attacking corps is youngster Andrew Wenger. Wenger was made the Impact's first-ever draft selection after being taken first overall in the SuperDraft last season. The Pennsylvania native appeared in 23 games, with seven starts, last campaign and bagged four goals. Assuming Wenger gets more consistent minutes this season, he should have a breakout year.

Wenger and Di Vaio up top together could be an extremely dangerous strike pairing for the Canadian club.

In the midfield, Patrice Bernier is one player the fans should flock to Saputo Stadium to see for his exceptional passing and creativity. One of the new faces in the middle of the field is Andrea Pisanu, who arrived in Montreal on January 4 on loan from Bologna.

He scored six goals in 75 games in Serie A, including 71 with Parma between 2004 and 2012. He has also played for Cagliari and Chievo in Italy's top flight.

Joining Bernier and Pisanu in the midfield roles will most likely be Justin Mapp, Filipe and Davy Arnaud.

In defense, the backline will be anchored by veteran Alessandro Nesta. Nesta will be 37 when the calendar turns to March, and will need to be the rock in the back for the Impact to progress in what could be Nesta's final season on the field.

"Maybe this is my last season, and I want to do very good," Nesta said during the team's preseason training in Florida. "I want to win with this club, with these guys. And I think we can."

Joining the Italian veteran in the back will be Jeb Brovsky, Matteo Ferrari and Hassoun Camara. Montreal finished 2012 with a minus-6 goal differential and will need to improve upon that figure this time around if they want to reach the postseason.

Montreal certainly has the pieces to continue its upward trend toward the playoffs, but Schallibaum will need to figure out how to get more production out of Di Vaio and Wenger if they are to reach the postseason party in year No. 2.

2012 IN REVIEW: Montreal had a relatively good first season in Major League Soccer in 2012. They started slowly and got better as the season went on, but finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points, missing the playoffs by 11 points.

ACQUISITIONS: Andrea Pisanu (M), Andres Romero (F).

LOSSES: Evan James (M), Shavar Thomas (D), Josh Gardner (D), Lamar Neagle (M).

OUTLOOK: Anytime a new coach enters the fray, it will take time for the team to adjust to what he expects from them, but assuming the acclimation process goes smoothly, Montreal certainly has a strong squad that can compete for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Di Vaio and Wenger together should drive a potent offense, allowing the Impact to potentially slide into the final postseason berth.