D.C. United has had a tricky start to the 2012 season, including matches against the league leaders (Sporting Kansas City), two Supporters Shield favorites (the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders), and an FC Dallas team most people expect to get into the playoffs.
Tonight's game against the Montreal Impact is not supposed to be that tough. They're an expansion team, after all, and so far they've played like one. They've given up an average of 2 goals per game (equal to the average score against Toronto FC, a team with a defense that you never want to be comparable to). In fact, Toronto is the only team Montreal has managed to beat in seven attempts. Impact head coach Jesse Marsch recently admitted he's still learning on the job after watching his side lose their way at Dallas, their most recent loss.
However, it's not like Montreal is being embarrassed every week. That loss to Dallas saw them leading as late as the 76th minute. Even their worst loss - 5-2 at the New York Red Bulls - saw the Impact take two leads on NYRB in the first half. As Ben Olsen says, they have been close to results but haven't figured out how to close the deal. They have an experienced roster, including plenty of guys that have played on stronger MLS teams over the years.
Marsch has used two formations thus far: a fairly standard 442 and a 4141. With Sanna Nyassi's apparent return to fitness, I'm expecting the 442 to return:
Notably for United, both outside back positions have seen two players both fail to nail down the starting job. On the right, Zarek Valentin has four starts to three for Jeb Brovsky. Before you blame the Olympics for Valentin missing games, it should be noted that Brovsky has started over Valentin when both were available. Hassoun Camara, signed last year by the Impact in their final minor league season, is the presumptive starter but has been injured.
In either case, United's left midfielder - probably Nick DeLeon, but possibly Chris Pontius with three games in a week - should be looking forward to this one. In my opinion, Valentin was only with the Olympic team because we don't have any good fullbacks in that age group, and in MLS he's looked vulnerable (probably why Chivas USA let him go without so much as a shrug). Brovsky, meanwhile, was deemed not good enough for the Vancouver Whitecaps, a 2011 expansion team.
On the left, Tyson Wahl appears to have unseated Josh Gardner. Wahl was playing center back for Montreal until Shavar Thomas and Matteo Ferrari got fit enough to start, and appears to have Marsch's trust. Gardner - a one-time United trialist - offers far more as an attacking threat thanks to his time spent as a left midfielder during the early years of his career. It should be noted that Seattle left Wahl unprotected for last season's expansion draft and never used him as more than a backup, while Gardner was unwanted by a Columbus Crew side that signed a new left back and also flirted with using Carlos Mendes out of position on the left (only to be stymied by his injuries).
Further forward, the Impact midfield is also in flux. Brazilian destroyer Felipe Martins and club captain Davy Arnaud are certain starters, but only Felipe's position is a sure thing (he'll be the more conservative of the central midfield pairing).
Arnaud should play on the right, but could also line up centrally over Javier Morales's former understudy Collen Warner. That role was supposed to be covered by Quebec native Patrice Bernier - who had a strong career in Scandinavia and Germany before returning home - but he has been benched for three straight games as Marsch has tried to stop the bleeding. Bernier is not injured, so we could see him return as well.
If Arnaud plays the central role, his spot on the right will fall to either Sinisa Ubiparipovic or Justin Mapp. Ubiparipovic scored the opener in Montreal's win over Toronto from that spot in his only start, but is more likely to continue his substitute's role. If Mapp is used on the right, former Sounder Lamar Neagle will offer speed down the left wing. Frankly, I think the Impact would be better off using Neagle over Mapp in just about any situation, but Marsch appears to want his wingers to pinch inside (making Mapp his preferred left midfielder).
The Impact could also use a 4141 after deploying it at RSL and Dallas. Both of those games were narrow defeats, and the extra midfielder helps Montreal slow down teams that are more skillful than them (a category DC fits into quite comfortably). If that's the case, Mapp will play from one wing, Nyassi (right) or Neagle (left) will stay wide opposite him, and Arnaud will come inside to be partnered by either Bernier, Warner, or possibly even Ubiparipovic in front of Felipe.
We've already covered the beatable players Marsch will have to choose from as fullbacks. Unfortunately for Montreal, they also have problems in central defense. The short version is that Thomas and former Italy international Ferrari are both slow (ironic given Ferrari's name). In fact, they're probably the slowest first-choice center back pairing in MLS, though TFC's Adrian Cann and Miguel Aceval (inexplicably still starting despite Cann's return from knee surgery) would give them a "run" for their money. Sorry, couldn't resist.
This might be another game to make use of Party Boy's speed. We saw how devastating that can be as he had three assists against a glacial Chivas USA center back pairing before breaking his leg last season. Even the outside backs are on the slow side for that position, so there won't be help coming
The key to the Impact attack is veteran Italian striker Bernardo Corradi. Corradi plays a classic target role, using his 6'3" size and savvy picked up after years in Serie A to hold the ball up and also win headers. Montreal has struggled a bit at holding possession in the midfield, and their defenders are not particularly gifted at playing out of the back. As a result, Corradi - who often plays in the right-center channel, as you can see from this heatmap - will see long balls from the back and early passes from the midfield more often than we're used to seeing in MLS.
Corradi's partner, Nyassi, is the exact opposite player. Nyassi is very small and very fast, and has already said he plans on getting in behind the United defense. The Gambian has often proven to be a tricky player to deal with due to his tendency to roam in search of spaces to run into, and the Impact will be looking for him on through balls as well as flick-ons from Corradi. Being alert to where those balls are going, as well as being physical on Nyassi before he begins his runs - will be vital.
United fans should expect to see a physical game. Benny's Army does not shy away from that side of the game, while Montreal is guilty of more fouls than any club in MLS by a wide margin. On one hand, that means plenty of set pieces, and one hallmark of struggling expansion teams is that they give away goals from just those kinds of opportunities.
On the other hand, this means United needs to match Montreal's intensity while not getting dragged down into a brawl. DC should win the soccer side of the game, but that will require focus and discipline in the face of various kicks and shoves. The best way to get back at the Impact for their provocative style of play is to punish them on set pieces, rather than just try to kick them back.
A big weakness for Montreal has been the lack of a winning mentality. They don't have the collective focus or the soccer IQ to finish games off. Their loss at Dallas last week saw them squander a lead by giving up two goals in the last 13 minutes, and also lost two leads at NYRB in the first half before collapsing in the second. Even with nearly 60,000 fans cheering them on in their MLS home debut, they conceded an equalizer to the Chicago Fire.
That's a double-edged sword, however. If Montreal is getting into leads, that means they're starting games well. United can't afford to start this game slowly, because the Impact seem to thrive on the mistakes of their opponent. This isn't your normal weak team looking to bunker down, either; Montreal will apply pressure in pursuit of forcing those mistakes.
Tonight is a real test of United's professionalism. In MLS, teams that string together wins over the clubs they're supposedly better than are the teams that end up near the top of the table. However, Montreal is going to be a desperate team given their place in the standings and the nature of their defeats. They've been close, and they're certainly tired of losing. For the Impact, this would be a far bigger win than beating a tired TFC at the Big O. United will have to match that level of desire, or risk letting a decided advantage in overall talent go to waste.