One of the words our regular readers see out of me in just about every article is "erratic." It's really not a good quality to have in a team or a player. Soccer is already a completely unpredictable game; aside from set pieces and a few rehearsed movements, everyone's just making it up as they go along. That's why we swoon when we see the game played well on a consistent basis. It's a hard game to succeed at, and consistency is a quality you want from your players and from your squad as a whole.
The Montreal Impact are erratic. If you don't believe me, just look at their results in June: An emphatic 4-1 victory over the Seattle Sounders, a one-goal loss that would have been a fair draw at Chivas USA, four more goals at home in a win over the Houston Dynamo, but then a huge regression in losing 3-0 to Toronto FC. That's TFC, the team that needed those three points to get within three points of the 18th best team in MLS.
Needless to say, results like that don't go over well. Head coach Jesse Marsch, known chiefly for his hyper-competitive approach as a player, said the Impact were "out-competed." Club president Joey Saputo went on Twitter to call their performance an "absolute disgrace." In other words, this went down about as poorly as you'd expect a 3-0 home loss against an opponent who is both a rival and the worst team in the league would be expected to go anywhere...well, except at TFC, where normally they're on the receiving end of this kind of humiliation.
This was supposed to be a big night for Montreal. New Designated Player Marco Di Vaio made his debut, and it was their first game in renovated Stade Saputo against a fellow Canadian side. A win would have temporarily elevated them into the Eastern Conference's fifth playoff spot. Psychologically, this could have been a big source of momentum for Montreal; instead, it was arguably their worst game of the season.
That said, embarrassment tends to spur people on to significant improvement, or at least a better effort, when they get their next chance. For Montreal, their trip down to what will be a blazing hot RFK Stadium to face D.C. United is that next chance. While we may look at their last result and scoff, there's this thing about being erratic: One minute you're horrible, but the next...who knows?
Up until the disaster against TFC, Marsch had been getting mostly respectable results since converting full-time to a 4231 and swapping the roles of Felipe Martins - formerly a holding midfielder - and Collen Warner, who was brought in due to his play at the point of Real Salt Lake's diamond midfield when Javier Morales was unavailable:
Marsch said he felt his team may have shown some signs of fatigue against TFC, so there are a fair number of potential changes to deal with here. At the fullback positions, Marsch has preferred Zarek Valentin and Jeb Brovsky of late. However, both would prefer to play right back, and Marsch's only options if he wants to freshen things up are Tyson Wahl (a center back who can play left back) and Josh Gardner (a left back who can play left midfield). If Wahl gets the nod - which, on the road, is far more likely than the attack-minded Gardner - then either Valentin or Brovsky will take a seat.
Felipe is more or less irreplaceable for Montreal right now, so he's likely to start. Everyone else, however, could potentially be rested. Davy Arnaud is the team captain and has generally played well, but at 32 you have to wonder if he'll play back-to-back-to-back games down the right side. If Marsch wants to go another way, he has two very different options: speedster Sanna Nyassi, or Sinisa Ubiparipovic, who prefers to drift into central spots and prefers to combine with teammates. Justin Mapp could also cycle over to the right, but would generally look to cut inside as well.
Mapp is more likely to start on the left, though, because Lamar Neagle went 90 on Wednesday and generally appears to be Marsch's second choice anyway. This baffles me, because I've never been a fan of Mapp's lack of intensity and his predictable game. Mapp may have more skill than Neagle, but he's slow and everyone knows he'll be trying to cut inside. If Robbie Russell lines up against Mapp, he should force Mapp to stay wide all game long, as it will render him totally ineffective.
Following a flat performance, central midfield tends to be a spot coaches look to shake things up. Montreal doesn't really have too many options in the engine room, though. Ubiparipovic could take Felipe's spot, with the Brazilian moving back to replace either Warner or Patrice Bernier, but Marsch has largely preferred to use Ubiparipovic as a nominally wide player. Former United player Bryan Arguez has been nowhere near the first team in weeks, and rookie Calum Mallace - a destroyer in college - has been converted into a right back while also barely playing.
In fact, if Marsch wants to pull a defensive midfielder, he might have to go back to a 442. That brings up a new problem: Di Vaio is roughly where Branko Boskovic was in terms of fitness when he arrived in the middle of the European offseason back in 2010, and despite only playing 55 minutes against TFC, it might be an injury risk to pile more games on so quickly. Justin Braun would appear to be an option, but it's been a while since Marsch has used him. Injuries to Bernardo Corradi (who tore his ACL) and Andrew Wenger (hamstring) have left Marsch short of forwards. Target man Eduardo Sebrango could also get the call, but at 39 years old he has understandably started just once all season.
Obviously Marsch is pretty short of options in the attack and in central midfield, and his team will also come to town on short rest to play with temperatures, if I'm reading the right weather pages, above 350 degrees. This, along with some slow-thinking defenders (really all of them other than Camara), means United should look to start the game at a high tempo. On a hot night, the best path to success over the years in MLS has been to do your best to grab the lead early. No one wants to chase the game when you've lost half your body weight in sweat, and Montreal won't have too many fresh players coming into the side.
As I just mentioned, that back four is pretty vulnerable. Brovsky is a conversion project as a fullback, I've never been impressed with Valentin - he looks like he's a couple years away from hitting his MLS journeyman defender ceiling - and Shavar Thomas is really only useful against teams that play direct, aerial soccer.
Serie A veterans Matteo Ferrari and Nelson Rivas are both listed as out right now, and without their experience the Impact are going to struggle with the mental side of defending. If United can keep the ball moving and make intelligent runs, the gaps will start to show up quickly.
People who watched Thursday's Euro 2012 semifinal between Germany and Italy got a good lesson in how a diamond midfield can combat a 4231. On paper, Germany had a 5v4 numerical advantage in the midfield, but Italy did very well to compress the field. Rather than playing from touchline to touchline, the game was played vertically within the width of the 18 yard boxes. That meant Italy's narrow four midfielders could outnumber Germany's three central midfielders, as the wingers stayed wide and barely got a sniff of the ball.
We've done the same thing. Remember the 4-1 win over FC Dallas? The same principle applied: Danny Cruz and Nick DeLeon were very committed to pinching in defensively, United's forwards made sure to funnel Dallas's defensive possession up the middle, and all the sudden it was our four midfielders against three for Dallas. This made Brek Shea, for example, a total non-factor. United can do the same to Arnaud, Mapp, Neagle, or whoever ends up playing wide for the Impact.
Aside from playing narrow and applying pressure all over the field from the start - with the heat, it's better to press early in pursuit of the lead rather than hope to still have the legs to press for the win later - United will need to improve in possession all over the field. Sure, there's obvious stuff like getting Boskovic on the field. There's also the less obvious, like avoiding the long ball and having our outside backs make themselves available as passing options throughout the game. The idea should be to make Montreal chase the ball. In these sweltering summer games, owning the possession during the early phases guarantees you more energy in the last half hour.
The bottom line here is that the Impact are limping into this game, just got battered by a rival, are on short rest, and the game will be played in unreasonable heat and humidity. This is a bad set of circumstances for any team. However, the old saying about a wounded animal holds true. The Impact are a feisty team, and their players won't be happy with themselves about their effort against Toronto. This is their chance to make it up to their fans and themselves.
For United to take three points - and failing to do so would be far more worrisome than losing in Jersey last week - it's vital to match or exceed that energy early, and make Montreal pay for their defensive issues. Combining quality possession, a narrow midfield, and some high pressure would set the stage for the Black-and-Red to return to winning ways.