In Scotland, in Minnesota, in Montreal, only one thing has dominated s life and that’s football.
“I’d go to the game every single weekend with my oldest brother, my Dad, my Granddad, and my Uncle,” he said. “My Uncle was a little bit crazy, yelling at the referees and stuff. I remember during the ’98 World Cup — Scotland are still in it — I had my first ever shandy [a mix of beer and lemonade] at 8-years-old. My Uncle insisted, ‘if you’re watching Scotland, you have to do it with a pint’ [laughs].”
Mallace moved to Minnesota with his family as a child, but his love for football did not diminish. A passion reared over the course of two decades, his love of playing football was nurtured by his Dad. “He actually built us a goal himself,” Mallace said. “It was made out of wood, and then after about two years he went and bought us one and put that together for us. It was pretty funny.”
Mallace is hopeful of making another footballing memory on Tuesday when his Montreal Impact side host Canadian rivals Toronto FC. Long gone is the homemade goals, with more than 60,000 fans expected to pack into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
“One of the biggest things I’ve loved from playing here is that the fans remind me of fans back home,” he said. “I was an Airdrie supporter growing up, and we didn’t get many fans but they’d sing for 90 minutes. That’s kind of how it is here. They have a big supporters’ section behind the goal, and they don’t stop singing. That’s the kind of thing you live for.”
The links between Europe and Montreal don’t stop at the club’s fans though. The club’s owner, Joey Saputo, is also the Chairman of Italian side Bologna, the club Montreal signed Matteo Mancosu on loan from. Elsewhere, the Impact’s style of play has drawn some interesting comparisons.
“I don’t think we said, ‘Let’s play like Leicester’,” Mallace explained. “When we went on our Champions League run last year a lot of the Mexican and Costa Rican teams loved to throw bodies forward. We decided then we would be more of a counter-attacking team. In MLS, we don’t really see ourselves in that way. We realise that defence can win you championships, like it did with Leicester. We take care of that first — the details at the back — then we have the strike power up top to be devastating in attack.”
Devastating is certainly a good word for Montreal’s forward line. Montreal has not created a wealth of opportunities during their playoff run, but they have been clinical. Against the New York Red Bulls in the last round the team produced six attempts on target during the two legs and scored three goals, compared to the Red Bulls seven attempts and one goal. One of those strikes was assisted by the returning Didier Drogba. The veteran saw himself dropped after refusing to sit on the bench during a regular season game. Now back and ready to contribute, Mallace feels the forward has an important role to play both on and off the field.
“There’s been absolutely no problems between Didier and the lads since he returned,” Mallace said. “It’s a huge derby match and when you have guys like Didier and [Ignacio] Piatti that have played at the next level we can lean on their experience in the big matches. I think that might give us the edge a little bit, but we still have to play our game, get our tactics right, and play well.”
Those tactics could be what stifle Sebastian Giovinco. As the Impact has shown during the playoffs they are comfortable sitting deep and trying to stay organised before springing on the counter attack — like the current Premier League champions did last year. Mauro Biello’s meticulous plan has seen early success, but for Mallace the Canadian head coach has fostered more than just a style of play during his first full season in charge.
“I think he’s built a work ethic that shines through the team,” he said. “We know that he puts in the hours, before training, after training, in the video sessions, all the little details like that. When you’re a manager like that you want to have players around you that will do the same thing. I think we have built that. You can make a mistake and it’s OK because you have your brother next to you that will put the work in to fix it. That’s the kind of guy Mauro is, and that’s what he’s built.”
A second half substitute during the second leg against Red Bulls recently, Mallace knows that he could be called upon at any time by Biello. However, regardless of his involvement, Tuesday will represent another big game for the midfielder. His decision to stay in Montreal has brought not only a CONCACAF Champions League final and this momentous evening in Canadian soccer, but also confirmation that he made the right choice by playing in MLS.
“This is a huge moment in my career, and I never know how long I’m going to be playing for,” Mallace said. “It’s moments like this, and last year in the Champions League final that you have to take a step back and see how privileged you are. You don’t want to take those moments for granted. Things like this are validation for me. I’ve had a lot of good memories here and that’s what matters most in the grand scheme of things.”