The planet-devouring juggernaut that is the World Cup is upon us, and though we welcome the temporary end of civilization it brings, there's some business to attend to first. D.C. United has a thoroughly unexpected chance to go into the World Cup break atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2012. It's a weird moment to play a game, but the points count just the same. Yes, that rhymes. No, I'm not sorry.
United's opponent tonight is the Montreal Impact, who sit at the other end of the standings in the East. L'Impact are actually dead last in MLS after Chivas USA's 1-1 draw with the Galaxy on Sunday. However, any thoughts that this game will be easy should be dismissed: Montreal is on a two-game winning streak - if you include their second leg win over Toronto in the Voyageurs Cup - and has conceded just one goal in three games. It was only about three weeks ago that United needed an 84th minute goal by Eddie Johnson - something akin to a winning lottery ticket at this point, sadly - to grab a 1-1 draw at RFK.
Frank Klopas's tenure with the Chicago Fire was marked with a tendency to go on long streaks. His 2013 Chicago side was a perfect example: Terrible for about 60% of the season, but borderline unstoppable in September and October. It's too soon to say that Montreal is another Klopas team that suddenly turns things around and fights their way into playoff contention, but they're certainly showing some of the symptoms.
After the move to trade Andrew Wenger for Jack McInerney - which is looking really good right now, by the way - the talk surrounding Montreal concerned how they'd best use their new acquisition alongside Marco Di Vaio. Both players like to exploit the gray area between offside and onside, neither has the size of a traditional MLS target man, and both are used to playing down the center channel.
An injury to Di Vaio made the choice easy for Klopas at first, though he did unveil an intriguing tactic in the match before the Italian veteran picked up a hamstring strain. Di Vaio started in his traditional #9 role in Montreal's 4231, with McInerney out on the left wing. However, both players exchanged roles on a regular basis, and Montreal's 1-0 win over Philadelphia that night flattered the Union. It looked like Klopas had come up with a pretty effective way to confuse opponents while getting his supposedly incompatible players on the field.
During Di Vaio's absence, however, the 4231 stopped working, forcing Klopas to scramble yet again. An ever-changing back four didn't help matters, and the Impact's season threatened to go from bad to disastrous. In fact, given the hair trigger owner Joey Saputo has with coaches, Klopas may well have been fired if his side hadn't received an extremely dubious stoppage time penalty kick in their Voyageurs Cup semifinal against FC Edmonton.
Seasons can turn on such moments, though, and the Impact came to RFK just three days later and played arguably their best game of the season up to that point. The secret? Montreal got back to basics. They relied on keeping two solid banks of four in defending, and attacked purely via counters. Despite having to chase the ball for long periods, the Impact created as many shots - and more shots on goal - than United. The way forward was starting to become clear.
Since that night - where the Impact played out of a 4411 without Di Vaio - Klopas has more or less stuck to the same formula. If Di Vaio and McInerney are available, they play a 442; if not, Felipe is given an attacking midfield role with an emphasis on getting forward to be a second goal threat. The back four is closer to being settled, though the recent trade for Futty Danso and signing of former KC right back Mechack Jerome might change that. Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello - like Di Viao and McInerney, a very similar pair - have had time to sort out their roles in central midfield. Justin Mapp keeps playing the best soccer of his life. All the sudden, Montreal is a tricky opponent.
Given the recent success of Montreal's defense, I doubt we see Danso or Jerome. Of the two, Danso is the more likely starter long-term, and I'd bet it would be over Wandrille Lefevre rather than Heath Pearce. I just don't think it's that likely to be something the Impact attempt tonight.
Left back has been a question mark, but it's basically a decision Klopas has to make between Karl Ouimette or Jeb Brovsky. Neither is a born-and-bred left back - Ouimette has mostly played center back, and Brovsky is a convert from central midfield - but both have been fairly stable of late. Ouimette has gotten more of the available minutes since Pearce and Lefevre became the first-choice center back duo, and if he starts he'll tend to stay home more than Brovsky.
Further forward, central midfield and the forward pairing are settled. However, Mapp was today downgraded from "no known injury" to "questionable," which is a good sign that he won't play. If that proves true, it's a big break for United. Mapp's runs from right midfield are the X factor for Montreal, and they don't have a similar replacement. Issey Nakajima-Farran has been scoring goals from wide midfield and is the likely choice here for Klopas.
He could also play Andres Romero on the right, but this system has worked better with inverted wide players. In Romero's case, that means playing on the left instead. It's also worth noting that Felipe has seen minutes as a wide man in MLS, and Klopas could roll the dice on him at either flank position.
The Impact have always been a more difficult proposition at home. Obviously that's the case with every soccer team on the planet, but within MLS the Impact seem even more heavily reliant on playing in Quebec than the average side. It's tempting to think they might try to play more expansive soccer as a result, but I have my doubts. They'll be more aggressive about keeping the ball than they were when we last saw them, and they won't sit so deep, but I'm guessing that the Impact will still be focused on keeping a shutout. Montreal is still on the road to recovery from their poor start to the season, and playing an open game risks their still-fragile confidence.
If Mapp is unavailable, the Impact lack the sort of speed that makes counterattacking soccer so dangerous. There's still plenty of technical skill and soccer IQ, though, so United will have to be mentally sharp for 90 minutes. In particular, Montreal has shown a knack for breaking out from deep due to the long-range passing ability of Bernier. Turnovers are always bad, but against Montreal they really need to be kept to a minimum. United will also need Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud to be alert to how quickly our attacks can become threats to our own goal.
The other major threat is that forward pairing. Any time you face two clever players off the ball who can finish like Di Vaio and McInerney can, you've got a problem on your hands. There's not a particularly innovative solution involved here. United will need to apply consistent pressure on the ball throughout the midfield to prevent early through balls, and the back four needs to maintain good spacing and communicate well. I haven't talked about it as much this season as in the past, but this is a huge test for United's ability to focus defensively.
Montreal's preference for counterattacking means United has to pick an approach and do it well. If we want to be aggressive on the road - with Jeff Parke doubtful, this seems like a risk even with Steve Birnbaum doing so well in his first-ever pro start - our pressure has to smother Montreal's counters at a very high rate. If we want to sit back we have to be very sharp whenever we end up with the ball. Otherwise, the goal becomes hanging on for a 0-0 draw and/or hoping to snatch a goal on a set piece.
Going forward, United needs to maintain a speed of play that's quick enough to prevent Montreal from getting organized. At RFK United was too slow with the ball for much of the game, and that allowed Pearce and Troy Perkins to get their troops in place. The Impact didn't do anything particularly innovative on that night; it was just good old fashioned organization and discipline.
For United to break Montreal's shutout streak, things have to happen faster. That doesn't mean running faster, though speed always helps. We're talking about thinking faster, moving in concert rather than waiting on one person's run to end, and things of that nature. In particular, United will need to be precise when passing the ball. It's one thing to pass to your target; it's another to place the ball on their preferred foot or in a spot where they don't have to break stride to collect the ball. Those lost half-seconds mean everything when playing a team like the Impact.
I'd like to see Nick DeLeon step his game up for this one, as I think he can get the better of either Ouimette or Brovsky at left back. Ouimette doesn't have very good lateral quickness, while Brovsky seems to be lacking belief at the moment. In either case, DeLeon needs to be aggressive on the dribble. If Montreal is going to play a stay-at-home outside back, there's no reason to hold back down the right side (especially if Romero, who isn't exactly a dogged defender, is at left midfield as well).
We probably go over this every week, but this is once again a great chance for EJ to break out. He's faster and smarter than the inexperienced Lefevre, and has speed and strength advantages over Pearce. Johnson needs to get himself into situations where he's being marked 1v1 so that he can take advantage of these advantages. United also needs to put in a few more traditional crosses to help him get on track. There will be opportunities to do so - again, especially on the right if Sean Franklin overlaps well - and getting a goal might cause Montreal to revert back to the losing mindset they had throughout the spring.
I mentioned set pieces earlier, and as is often the case United should have the advantage inside the box. Birnbaum replacing Parke actually increases that, as Birnbaum was a goal-scoring machine in college despite playing as a center back the whole time. Montreal has some size themselves with Hassoun Camara and Lefevre, but their second-tier options aren't going to be able to cope with guys like Kitchen. If Espindola's service is better than it was against Columbus, this could be a pretty successful means of attack.
At the other end, Montreal does have pretty decent service, with or without Mapp. Bernardello isn't an elite set piece taker, but he's a pretty consistent option. The real danger with Montreal isn't necessarily them scoring on headers, but rather turning the scrambles and second-chance looks into goals. With Di Vaio and McInerney involved, there's always a chance that they get onto a loose ball first, and with their finishing ability that's a big problem. United needs to win the first ball throughout, and then clear it effectively rather than letting the Impact put the ball back into the box.
All in all, this is a tricky sort of game. The expectation is that United should be able to get a win over a bad team. The pressure is almost entirely on the visitors. That's just how the Impact would want it, too. In terms of team psychology, United needs to start well and force Montreal to question whether their recent good form is just anything beyond a simple flash in the pan. The longer the Impact are dictating the terms, the more their sense of belief will strengthen.
Much has been made down here about how this is a huge game for United. That's true of any chance to go into first place in your conference. However, I'd argue this is an even bigger game for Montreal, who are really at the precipice of changing the narrative of their season. Right now, they're experiencing a brief recovery that may point towards better things. A win tonight, and they head into the break as a team charging up the standings. When you're eight points out of a playoff spot, winning your midweek games becomes hugely important. It's up to United to make sure the status quo is maintained, and that will require a focused performance for 90 minutes.