Marco Di Vaio: still scoring after all these years
Plenty of star players have great presence. The joint-top goalscorer in has magnificent absence.
As the regular season comes to a climax, Marco Di Vaio is a leading contender for the league's two top individual honours, the Golden Boot and the Most Valuable Player award.
Yet he is not a showman in the manner of Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, whose Los Angeles Galaxy host the Impact on Wednesday night. It's the opposite: Di Vaio is a spectre. He knows that elite scorers are at once predator and prey, hunting goals yet stalked by defenders who track their every step. Shooting is a science, elusion is an art.
So he lurks in the interstices of the back four, then melts from plain sight into the blurry hinterlands of a defender's peripheral vision. Now you see him, now he's gone. And within a couple of seconds he might well be celebrating.
The Italian has 19 MLS goals this season, level with the Chicago Fire's Mike Magee and one ahead of Camilo Sanvezzo of the Vancouver Whitecaps.
This without scoring from the spot, while Magee and Camilo each have three penalties. Only two of Di Vaio's goals have come from outside the box, and only one was a header. Two-thirds of his shots hit the target, and one-quarter beat the goalkeeper.
The most remarkable statistic is that he turned 37 in July. Unlike Henry, he has not drifted deeper to find more space and time as his legs have slowed, becoming as much a creator as a finisher. Di Vaio still leads the line, still plays like he did a decade earlier: rudely bumping up against his marker like they're rush-hour commuters, then peeling away to receive the ball and fashion an attempt on goal.
His movement deserves a sound effect and shimmering light, as if he's been beamed from A to B by Scotty. He even ghosted from nowhere into our interview, arriving late and almost unnoticed into the hotel lobby in downtown Houston ahead of the team's defeat by the Houston Dynamo earlier this month.
With so many close-range finishes he is a utilitarian goalscorer, and admits as much. "The most important thing is to score goals that help the team. If I score and I don't help my team, for me [it's pointless]. I feel bad because I want to help the Impact go to the playoffs. It's very, very important for the team, the club, our fans. When I score, I want to score goals that help," he said.
Di Vaio left Bologna for Montreal in July last year, arriving as the franchise's first Designated Player during their maiden MLS season. He will earn $1.9m this year, according to MLS players union figures, making him the sixth-highest-paid player in the league.
In 2012 he scored five times in 17 matches and the Impact missed out on the playoffs. "Now my teammates know me, know my movement, we feel very good at this moment and we can find ways to score," he said.
Montreal are fourth in the Eastern Conference, set for a post-season berth despite subsiding out of contention for first place after a strong start. They are an aberrant bunch: 17th out of the 19 MLS clubs in shots taken, yet fifth-equal in goals scored. Fewest fouls conceded; second-most fouls awarded. Only the wretched Chivas USA have taken fewer corners. Thanks to Di Vaio, no team has been given offside more often.
If a Golden Flag award existed it would be on Di Vaio's mantlepiece. He gives assistant referees repetitive strain injury. The striker has been judged offside 72 times in 30 MLS games this season, according to Opta. That is more often than 10 MLS teams. The least-flagged club, the Los Angeles Galaxy, has been given offside only 41 times. The runner-up on the individual list, the Seattle Sounders' Eddie Johnson, has been caught on 37 occasions.
It reveals plenty about Di Vaio's playing style, as well as an awareness that those aging legs need a head-start. "I'm tired, I'm old," he grinned. "It's not easy for me to play now but when I have a goal like this close to me, I want to push, because my objective is for the team to be in the playoffs for the first time."
Di Vaio left Europe seeking a fresh experience after a career spanning 20 years, 14 for Italy and 10 clubs in the Italian, Spanish and French leagues, among them Juventus, Parma and . Strangely peripatetic for a player who has been a consistently reliable goalscorer, though strikers who are pure finishers depend heavily on the creative ability of their team-mates. Montreal have three gifted assist-mongers: Patrice Bernier, Felipe Martins and Justin Mapp.
"Over here there are new people and everything's a new challenge. It's a blank page that we can write how we want," he said. "They said there'd be a new team, everything new, and I wanted to share this moment with them."
He finds Quebec both exotic and familiar. "Montreal is a European club in North America," he said. As well as the city's cultural and architectural heritage, the Impact's transfer strategy has helped make Di Vaio feel comfortable.
He is one of five Italians along with two former Bologna teammates, Andrea Pisanu and Daniele Paponi; one-time Everton loanee Matteo Ferrari and the 37-year-old Serie A and azzurri great Alessandro Nesta.
Heavy recruitment from was perhaps not surprising, given the background of the club's president, Joey Saputo, the son of an Italian immigrant who built a dairy empire. It was also logical for a Europhile fanbase, and is proving a smart decision on the field, where Nesta and Di Vaio's savvy compensates for their lack of speed and can make opponents look naive.
"We bring a lot of experience from Europe and share it with the American players, with the South American players," Di Vaio said. "If MLS pays a lot of money for players from Europe or South America, the ideas are different, because we're 100 years ahead in soccer. Now they have to improve at the technical and tactical level. [Then] they'll be one of the best leagues in the world."
The Impact parted company with their American head coach, Jesse Marsch, in the off-season, replacing him with an older man from Switzerland, Marco Schällibaum.
Di Vaio thinks that more coaches with international experience could help raise the league's standard and be adept at handling increasingly cosmopolitan squads. "Now the whole world knows MLS, a lot of players want to come here to play, but they have to find a coach who understands everybody. With new coaches with new experiences and new ideas, MLS could be one of the best leagues in the world," he said.
For now, , despite what he termed "a family problem in Italy" that made him seriously consider retiring and returning to find a front-office job, possibly with Bologna. Even after two decades, evading opponents and finding the ball, gliding like a phantom and filling those blank pages with goal after goal. That never gets old.