D.C. United will need to win the central midfield battle to beat the Montreal Impact. That's a tall task thanks to the quality of players like Felipe and Patrice Bernier.
The last time D.C. United faced the Montreal Impact, the expansion side couldn't have arrived at a better moment for the Black-and-Red. While United were primed and ready, the Impact came to RFK Stadium for their fifth game in just two weeks. The result was a 3-0 drubbing in which United barely had to break a sweat once Robbie Russell scored early in the second half. Montreal didn't give up; rather, they simply had nothing left in the tank just three days after their worst result of the season (a 3-0 loss at home to Toronto FC).
To a certain extent, the roles have switched. United will travel to Stade Saputo on three days' rest, missing their starting outside backs and a potential starting forward. Meanwhile, the Impact have been resting up and getting key players like World Cup winner Alessandro Nesta back from injury. One gets the sense that Montreal would love to return the favor in their house, which has become a fortress (just ask San Jose and NYRB, who have both lost 3-1 in Montreal within the last month). Need numbers? The Impact are 7W-0D-2L since moving into the renovated Stade Saputo.
There's also the minor matter of the playoff hunt. The Impact have just seven games left in the 2012 season thanks to the unbalanced schedule - when you think about it, it's their own fault, since their existence foisted this schedule upon us - and a loss would leave them seven points behind United having played three more games. It wouldn't mathematically kill their playoff hopes, but you know in westerns where the town coffin maker measures up the underdog in the day's big gunfight without asking? It would be time for him to size the Impact up if they lose today.
On the other hand, a win leaves them just one point out of the playoffs. They'd still be a longshot with the number of games they've played, but it would make a huge difference psychologically. For a team with young players that never really had a reason to believe they'd be where they are, heading into September within spitting distance of the playoffs would be a huge boost. Not only that, but it would extend their winning streak to a shocking five straight games, one of the best runs for any expansion team in MLS history.
A huge part of the reason the Impact are doing so well of late is that Jesse Marsch has essentially settled his lineup, bar the revolving door at left midfield. They'll play out of MLS's most positionally rigid 4231:
This squad contains good news and bad news from a United perspective. We already touched on the bad news: Nesta is back, and even at 36 he is an outstanding defender. In terms of positioning and soccer IQ, he's probably in a class by himself in MLS. His return will improve the entire Impact squad defensively while also giving them some added composure coming out of the back.
The good news? All those question marks around Nesta. Matteo Ferrari spent the week fighting off an illness, and even if he does play he won't be 100% physically. If Marsch decides he can't risk that, Shavar Thomas will step in. Thomas is big and physical, but he's not fleet of foot or thought. Ferrari is smarter and a bit quicker, but in either case the center back pairing will be slow. Youngster Karl Ouimette may be under consideration, but at 20 years old and possibly more comfortable at left back, I highly doubt Marsch will roll the dice on him in such a big game.
That means players like Chris Pontius and Long Tan could see plenty of chances thanks to their speed, while Hamdi Salihi won't have to worry about the normal speed deficit he's at against most MLS defenders. Lionard Pajoy is no track star, but he should have an all-around athletic advantage, particularly if he's up against the Italian duo.
Zarek Valentin has been injured for a little while, but is off the injury report this week and is well-liked by Marsch. If he's good to go, I'd expect him in at right back. That means a move for utility man Jeb Brovsky to left back, where young Swiss import Dennis Iapichino has started the last couple of games. Again, this comes down to whether Marsch wants to trust a player just over an issue in what amounts to a playoff game for the Impact.
The thing about that is that it doesn't make that much of a difference who he chooses. I'm not a fan of Valentin's play; he fails to make a difference in most games despite having all the tools of a decent defender. Brovsky, meanwhile, is a utility man for a reason: Good enough to get on the field, but not good enough to win any particular job. Iapichino only just turned 22, and despite nearly 60 appearances in the Swiss 2nd division before his move he's looked a bit raw to me. He'll be a good player, but future gains won't help today. United should relentlessly attack both flanks.
The final question mark is left midfield, where the ever-unconvincing Justin Mapp won't take part due to injury. Lamar Neagle scored a lovely goal against the San Jose Earthquakes, but then Sanna Nyassi scored the match-winner at the New England Revolution the week before. Both players are fast and skillful; Nyassi is faster and more of a tricky dribbler, but he's also something of a headcase. Neagle is the better passer, but can also fade entirely out of games from time to time. My guess is that the more defensively responsible Neagle gets the call after Andy Najar's impression of Dani Alves left the Chicago Fire confused and beaten Wednesday night.
The real key for United, however, is in the center of midfield. Felipe - who started the season playing the deepest role in the Impact midfield - has made a good impression as an attacking midfielder. The Brazilian is a real threat from long range, has the vision to spot killer passes and the skill to pull them off, and can also do things like this. Perry Kitchen will have to deliver an outstanding effort, no matter whether he ends up partnering Marcelo Saragosa or Branko Boskovic.
It's not just about Felipe, though. The 4231 isn't far removed from the 433, and United's central midfielders will need plenty of help from the wings to make sure the numbers in that section of the field don't become 3v2 in favor of Montreal. Further, the whole midfield will have to watch out for the late runs of Patrice Bernier, who is Montreal's leading scorer with 8 goals.
Sure, Bernier takes the penalty kicks - the Impact seem to get one every other game somehow - but Bernier is a starter for Canada and has settled in after a rocky start for his hometown club after a career spent mostly in Denmark. He and Collen Warner have figured out how to handle the central midfield, with one staying home while the other surges forward. Bernier probably makes 60-70% of the forward runs, however, and his cleverness at the top of the box is a big source of creativity for Montreal. He simply cannot be allowed to have time and space, and that means keeping an eye out for the late run. One of the defensive midfielders will eventually join the attack if the move has enough time, and late runs are often deadly.
Marco Di Vaio - now that he's not being charged in the Italian betting scandal that turned into something of a witch hunt - is another problem. One look at him and you wonder why Marsch would play an old, smallish guy up front by himself in MLS. "The Stoat" - that's a type of weasel, apparently - is an appropriate nickname for the Italian veteran, because he is slippery and evasive. Di Vaio will often pop up far away from the center backs to help out a passing move, then seemingly vanish before turning up again in a dangerous spot behind the defense.
He might not look like much, but he left Bologna of Italy's Serie A as a hero. We're talking about a guy who averaged around 15 goals over the previous five seasons, all in one of the world's strongest leagues. Di Vaio plays with his brain first and foremost, and stopping players like that demands focused, intelligent defending for 90 minutes. United's defense must always keep tabs on Di Vaio, because he's just waiting for the moment the Black-and-Red decide he isn't a threat.
Montreal doesn't have the most athletic team, nor do they have the hardest-working side. However, there are smart players all over the field for them - I haven't even mentioned the perpetually underrated Davy Arnaud, captaining the side from the right wing - and they'll pose a real challenge for DC this afternoon. As the game wears on and United gets more tired, they're going to have a harder time thinking fast enough to cope with Montreal's movement and patience.
Staying focused and disciplined, especially in possession, will be crucial if we're to join the small group of teams to stop the Impact from taking 3 points at their new home. Another big factor will be making sure to get out in front; as we saw when the Impact visited RFK, tired teams don't do well having to chase a game. The first goal is always important in soccer, but for United it'll be even more vital than normal. Starting this game fast and throwing Montreal off their rhythm is the way to go.