The Montreal Impact are a disaster. I use the present tense because the disaster is ongoing, right this second. On Filibuster this week, our guest Sofiane Benzaza from Mount Royal Soccer - a very cheerful, positive guy in general - used words like "shambles" and "panic" in talking about the Impact. With six points, they're three adrift of the rest of MLS, and they've also got the worst goal differential (-10) and are tied for the fewest goals scored with Toronto FC, who have played two fewer games. D.C. United fans who survived 2013 know how bad things can get, and up in Quebec they are rapidly approaching that kind of bad.
They are coming off a win, but it's as dubious as they come. Up 3-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate, they found themselves on the verge of humiliation in the Voyageurs Cup - Canada's much smaller answer to the US Open Cup - after letting visiting FC Edmonton score twice and pull ahead on away goals.
Five minutes into stoppage time, one of the more generous penalty kick calls you'll see in 2014 went their way, however, and captain Patrice Bernier saved his team from what would have been a truly embarrassing loss. Edmonton isn't even a good lower-division team: They're in ninth place in the ten-team NASL, and are the only team scoring less than one goal per game. That team managed four goals over two legs against the Impact.
Sound familiar? Maybe you even made the trip down to Richmond last season to see United go down to nine men in extra time before converting all their penalty kicks? Or maybe you'll more easily recognize a team standing pat through the offseason despite some obvious signs that moves were required?
Oh sure, the Impact have Marco Di Vaio and Jack McInerney up top rather than Lionard Pajoy, but then United didn't have stories about players potentially half-assing games to get new coach Frank Klopas fired coming out. You didn't see Dave Kasper or Will Chang on the field arguing with opposing head coaches. The problems are different, but the result is pretty similar. Barring a major course correction, Montreal is on course to give last year's United a run for their money.
The problems are as varied as they are deep. Despite Alessandro Nesta's retirement, the group of regularly-used players is still among MLS's oldest, and those old players have either missed numerous games (Di Vaio, via suspension and now injury) or are in horrendous form (Matteo Ferrari). Designated Player Hernan Bernardello - note: Montreal has a DP anchor midfielder, which is already not how things work in MLS - is not old, but he's been injured too, as has La Liga veteran center back Adrian Lopez. Nelson Rivas, who was inexplicably re-signed for the season, hasn't played a second. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, the players that are fit have been bad. Heath Pearce only played a couple of games before getting benched for some combination of rookie Eric Miller and academy trio Karl Ouimette, Maxim Tissot, and Wandrille Lefevre (from that group, only Lefevre is older than 22). Felipe has shown some flashes when breaking into the attacking third, but has largely been poor when it comes to delivering the final ball or finishing himself. Jack McInerney, acquired in MLS's biggest trade this season, has looked close to being the guy that went on a fourteen game scoreless streak last season as opposed to the Di Vaio successor the Impact probably thought they were getting.
Compounding matters, Montreal will arrive at RFK having endured the following recent schedule:
- May 7th: Flight to Edmonton (about 1800 miles, or roughly equal to New England flying out to play RSL) to play on turf against FC Edmonton
- May 10th: Home game against the buzzsaw that is Sporting Kansas City
- May 14th: Home game against the Eddies that required them to push themselves as hard as possible in the last 30 minutes
It's not an incredibly brutal stretch, but Montreal is not at all equipped for difficulties right now. Given their injuries - Lopez, Miller, Rivas, Ferrari, Felipe, and Di Vaio are all carrying some kind of issue, despite the clean slate listed on the MLS injury report that few teams are honest about - and a suspension for Collen Warner, the Impact might not have a spare field player to leave out of their gameday 18 (sorry, third string GK Maxime Crepeau).
It's still tough to predict who will start, though, and also what their formation will be. Klopas has stuck mostly with a 4231, but these are desperate times for Montreal. The offense really needs Di Vaio and McInerney paired, but sacrificing the extra midfielder given the Impact's defensive woes is unlikely on the road and with tired legs.
So, lots of question marks here. I am reasonably sure that Ouimette and Hassoun Camara will play, but exactly where they'll do so depends on who else makes up the back four. Ferrari was not in the 18 Wednesday, and Pearce - in his first start in weeks - took a blow to the face just before the final whistle. It's probably easiest to say that Ouimette is usually used left of center, but will play right-center back if Pearce retains his spot. Camara could also play center back, which would require moving Jeb Brovsky out to the right and leaving left back to Tissot or Pearce. Lefevre is also in the running to start, but thankfully he is a pure center back and thus can't confuse things further.
Montreal's back four, no matter who plays, is a mess right now. The constant changing of players has resulted in a clear lack of understanding among the group, and the potential vocal leaders (Rivas and Pearce) have either been injured or out of form. United's attackers work hard and come from rather unorthodox angles, which is not at all what you want to see when your defense is already a jumble of confusion.
Camara and Ouimette do have some respectable aerial ability, but United can still fire in crosses because every Impact defender is prone to ball-watching and/or bad judgment. Normally I try to mention a channel that is particularly vulnerable, but in this case they're all weak. The Impact leave gaps because they don't diagnose runs quickly, plain and simple. It's a team-wide problem, too, because the midfield either does just as poor of a job at that or simply fails to keep up when their man makes a hard run.
If Eddie Johnson's head is in the right place after missing out on the World Cup roster, he could be in for a very good outing. He's faster than the players that can compete with him for strength, and he'll be able to physically overpower the rest of the Impact's defenders. If EJ's movement and effort are there, he'll have plenty of chances. EJ should look to exploit the gap between the two center backs, because Montreal doesn't defend well enough to force him to run other channels.
It's worth noting that despite his being suspended in MLS play, Klopas opted not to play Warner against Edmonton. That leaves Klopas with only one fresh central midfielder (Calum Mallace, who has just one start in 2014 and 472 MLS minutes in a three-year career). Bernardello is only just back from injury, and Bernier has seen only spotty playing time due to misgivings about his being a 34 year old central midfielder.
Klopas has no other options here, so I'm leaning towards Mallace getting the call in an effort to keep the game close by giving the Impact a chance to compete physically in central midfield. If Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud can turn this into a more physical game in the middle of the field, however, United should be able to dictate the terms from there.
Dictating the terms is important, because in spite of their flaws Montreal is a pretty respectable possession team. While I expect them to sit deep and purely look for chances on the break via turnovers or rashly-timed attempts to step high by Bobby Boswell or Jeff Parke, the Impact are still a team capable of slowing play down and keeping the chances to a minimum. United simply cannot let this happen, because it's the best way for Montreal to accomplish a couple of things (e.g. hiding that woeful defense, building some confidence, etc). The Black-and-Red need to be an aggressive, harrying team tomorrow night to further Montreal's misery.
Further forward, Justin Mapp will surely start on the right despite playing the full 90 mid-week. Mapp has been the lone bright spot for Montreal this season, and with all due respect to Di Vaio is the most dangerous player for the Impact by a comfortable margin. Whatever threat Klopas's side will pose is going to largely come from the right wing.
The funny thing with Mapp is that his game is fairly simple and predictable; he's just so good at what he does that it keeps working. Mapp wants to receive the ball at his feet rather than chase it into space; he wants to face his man on the dribble; he prefers to cut inside just outside the box, but failing that will cut in within five yards of the endline; and Mapp will look to pass or cross low rather than make traditional crosses. It's not a wide range of possibilities, but his timing is excellent and his speed puts people on their heels.
Unfortunately for United, the defender most vulnerable to this sort of thing is Christian. I'm not so much worried that Christian will get skinned a bunch of times as I am that he'll either a) miss once badly, as he did against Patrick Nyarko, or b) will pick up a card (or two) in the course of fouling Mapp repeatedly.
The key for stopping Mapp is to prevent him from getting going in the first place. He likes the ball played into his feet, so marking him tightly helps. He shrinks away from physical play, so a (legal) bump or shoulder-to-shoulder collision as he receives the ball will slow him down. In the event that Mapp does start a run towards goal, the best thing to do is to deny him a shot while staying marked up with other runners. Eventually, Mapp will stop running and play a backpass, and that means the attack will probably die at someone else's feet soon enough.
Up top, Montreal could pose an additional threat if Di Vaio is fit. In their match against Philly a couple of weeks ago, Di Vaio and McInerney freely swapped the roles of striker and left winger throughout the game and caused the Union all sorts of trouble. Yes, it's only the Union, but it was still broadly similar to the confusion United has been causing teams with the movement of Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe.
Di Vaio is nursing a hamstring strain and hasn't been in uniform for the last two Impact games, but if he's at all fit I would imagine Klopas would get him out there. If not, however, his decision is more complicated. Andres Romero is the freshest regular, but has not impressed this season at all. Sanna Nyassi is back from injury, but just played 90 minutes on Wednesday. One player that Klopas hasn't used much is Blake Smith, who offers more speed and work rate than Romero and more defensive bite than Nyassi. Smith wasn't even in the 18 for the game against Edmonton, but Klopas should consider all of his options at this point.
Mentally, United needs to get two things right: Avoid big-time mistakes while pushed high up the field - thus preventing breakaways for McInerney or Di Vaio, which are a huge part of Montreal's attack - and starting the game at a good level. L'Impact have conceded 10 first-half goals in MLS play, but have also managed to score three of their seven total goals in the first 15 minutes of their matches. It's a weird situation: Montreal tend to be very vulnerable to start games, but they're also more likely to score themselves. The opening stages will be crucial for United to prove they can be ruthless with a weakened opponent.
We tend to close with set pieces, and Montreal's defending in those situations has been...well, not great, but better than you'd expect from a hypothetical worst team in MLS. They have some size, and Troy Perkins has been mostly sound coming off his line, but when I watch them I see a team that would struggle badly with any sort of pick-based movement or some rehearsed runs. Don't be surprised if the Black-and-Red's new focus on being harder to predict on dead balls results in some big chances.
Offensively, Montreal's set piece play has been poor. The delivery hasn't been there, the creative runs haven't been there, and there's a distinct lack of that mean attitude teams tend to have that helps them fight off defenders to get onto the incoming service. Again, there are targets here - Camara in particular is a threat - but Montreal's set piece plan often seems to consist of "OK, you cross the ball in, and everyone else just run around and hopefully it works somehow." 'arry Redknapp would be proud.
It's been a long time since United had any games where the expectations were for a definite win, but last week and tomorrow fit the bill. DCU was not that good in Philly, but they got the job done with strong individual defending and via midfield dominance. At home, against an even weaker (and wearier) opponent, everyone around the club will be hoping for a more impressive showing. Hopefully we can see the United that sensed blood in the water once FC Dallas went down to ten men. This is a classic #SweepTheLeg game if there ever was one.