Montreal, QC (SportsNetwork.com) - The Montreal Impact enter their third season in Major League Soccer battling against a sophomore slump as well as the inevitable father time.
The Impact looked to be en route to greatness early last season as they won each of their first four games and lost just once in their first eight.
But by the end of the season, the wheels had come off the bus in a big way.
Following a 4-2 win over New England on Sept. 8, the club won just once over its final nine league matches and limped into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 14-13-7 record for 49 points.
They matched up against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium in the knockout round game and were humbled, 3-0, sending the club to an early exit.
Star striker Marco Di Vaio carried the offensive load all season for the Impact, scoring 20 goals and adding two assists. But the Italian is now 37 years old, and would need to produce similar results this season for the Impact to compete in a loaded East.
But if Di Vaio can't reproduce his stellar numbers from last season, where are the goals going to come from?
The scoring burden is likely to fall on the shoulders of second-year player Blake Smith and third-year forward Andrew Wenger. Smith was drafted eighth overall by the Impact last year and scored two goals in 16 appearances.
Wenger, meanwhile, was a No. 1 overall selection by the Impact in 2012 and has scored just five goals over his first two seasons. He'll need to improve on that number dramatically if the club is to earn a playoff spot.
Smith offered an explanation for his struggles last season.
"I stopped seeing the field as much last year, and I had no real explanation for what I was doing wrong to not be on the field," he said. "It was pretty stressful personally. Maybe, to my own fault, I should have gone to the coaching staff and said 'what do I need to improve?' This year, it seems different, and I think the coaches are making an initiative to come to the young players and let them know what they need to do better."
Captain Patrice Bernier returns to anchor a midfield that produced well last season. Bernier will occupy his defensive mid role, along with Justin Mapp and new acquisition Santiago Gonzalez on the wings, while Felipe Martins will take the attacking midfield role.
Montreal didn't do much to improve its squad in the offseason, but the club's biggest coup during the silly season was Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Uruguay youth international.
He led his club Sud America to promotion after the 2013 season, but he's really an unknown hoping to make a big impact in MLS.
On defense, Montreal has one large hole to fill as veteran Italy international Alessandro Nesta retired. Nesta anchored the backline last season, but at 37 years of age, has certainly lost a step. Replacing him in central defense will likely be Wandrille Lefevre and Matteo Ferrari, while Hassoun Camara and Jeb Brovsky will be out wide.
Also new in the fold for Montreal this season is head coach Frank Klopas, who comes to Montreal from Chicago, replacing Marco Schallibaum.
"I knew as a youngster there was a strong soccer base here, Klopas said in an introductory interview. "I saw that over the past two years. The club has a great fan base and it's always nice to have them on your side. The support will always be there, and I think that's a tremendous help for the players."
Klopas' Fire team did a brilliant job over the final two months of 2013 of initiating attacks from deep positions and letting the attacking midfielders and forwards swap positions as needed. He will look to instill that system in a Montreal team that was overly-reliant on Di Vaio to score.
If players such as Smith and Wenger don't pick up the scoring slack, however, it's tough to see the Impact in the playoffs in 2014.
ACQUISITIONS: Santiago Gonzalez (F), Eric Miller (D).
LOSSES: Alessandro Nesta (D), Paolo DelPiccolo (M), Maximiliano Rodriguez (M), Sinisa Ubiparipovic (M), Davy Arnaud (M), Zarek Valentin (D).
OUTLOOK: After an exceptional start to last season, the Impact's age caught up with them down the stretch. The club was far too reliant on Di Vaio to score goals. Wenger, Smith, Felipe and, to a lesser extent, Mapp, must step up and pick up the slack for Klopas' new team to have a chance to make the playoffs in a newly-loaded Eastern Conference. It can't just be the "Di Vaio Show," it will have to be "Di Vaio & friends" if this team has any chance.