Impact striker Marco Di Vaio during practice on Friday August 9, 2013.
Photograph by: Pierre Obendrauf, The Gazette
MONTREAL — When Italian soccer star Marco Di Vaio arrived in Montreal last year to play for the Impact, more than 200 people showed up at the airport to greet him.
Despite that high-profile entrée into Montreal, the veteran striker usually flies under the radar in the city when he’s out running errands.
It’s the kind of anonymity in Montreal that Canadiens players can only dream of.
In the nearly 15 months since the Impact signed him, Di Vaio and his family have settled comfortably into their new life here.
“We’re very happy because we’ve found all the things we need,” said Di Vaio, who lives in Westmount.
That includes a good school for his two daughters, age 5 and 7, who are learning French and English.
Di Vaio likes the multi-cultural nature of Montreal. His family has explored the city and gone skiing at Bromont. He goes to cafés in Little Italy and has also attended two Canadiens games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins — “the atmosphere was incredible.”
The harsh reality of a Montreal winter still sounds fresh in his mind.
“Difficult, hard,” he said, without hesitation.
Before he left for Italy last Christmas, it was fine.
“When I came back after Christmas in January, it was two months — incredible, incredible,” he said.
But he was struck by the “energy” Montrealers have in good weather and in bad. It came as a surprise to him, he said, “because I thought that with a winter like that … nobody would go in the street.”
The Impact signed Di Vaio, a veteran of Italy’s elite Serie-A, in May 2012 as their first designated player. Under Major League Soccer rules, teams can sign up to three players whose salaries exceed the individual player maximum. A DP counts $368,750 against the club’s salary cap, with the remainder of the salary covered by the team.
Di Vaio will earn a base salary of $1 million this year (or $1.9 million in guaranteed compensation), according to figures on the MLS Players Union’s website, putting him among the highest paid players in the league.
He’s the Impact’s top offensive threat, leading the team in goals (11), shots (74) and shots on goal (36).
“It’s been successful, there’s no two ways about it,” retired Impact player and Fox Soccer News analyst Lloyd Barker said of Di Vaio’s signing.
“He works very hard for the team,” added Barker, who also writes a soccer column for The Gazette. “You can see his fight. You can see his spirit.
“He’s trying to win something. He’s trying to achieve something and I think that’s what he brings to the team. He brings credibility because you kind see his work rate as well.”
Di Vaio also leads the MLS in times offside by a wide margin. He’s been called offside 46 times this season, which is 19 more than the two players who trail him in that category.
Di Vaio tries to make blindsided runs behind the opposing team’s last defender, Barker explained. It’s a strategy that has worked.
“It’s not something he’ll be ashamed of because it’s just the way he plays,” Barker said.
“That’s why he’s the talk of the league because they know that if he’s offside five times in a game, (the) one time that he’s onside you’re down 1-nil because he’s not going to miss.”
While Di Vaio, who turned 37 last month, has lost a step, Barker said he has a turn of pace over a short distance where he can create space for himself.
“He still has that and that’s important,” Barker added.
Di Vaio, who once played in France for a year, fielded questions easily in French in an interview. He says with English he started at zero and now gives himself a mark of 2/10 in the language — an assessment that may be too harsh, judging by the higher grade offered by an Impact official, who heard the remark.
When Di Vaio retires, he can return and work with his former club Bologna FC. He played four years with the team before coming to Montreal. His contract with the Impact ends in December, although it contains an option to extend it.
Asked if he sees himself playing soccer for another year or two, Di Vaio said it depends on a lot of things, such as the shape he’s in at the end of the year.
“I’m sure that if I continue to play I’ll play in Montreal,” he said.
The Impact, which sits in fourth place in the East Division with a 10-7-5 record, will be back in action Saturday at Saputo Stadium (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS) against D.C. United (3-16-4).
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