After two games at the MLS is Back Tournament, D.C. United sits on 2 points, leaving their fate up in the air heading into tomorrow night’s game against the Montreal Impact. It’s effectively a knockout game for both teams; neither team can advance with a loss, while a draw would doom the Impact and see United’s hopes at the mercy of results elsewhere.
At this point, pessimists will point to two slow starts requiring an incredibly rare comeback and a fortuitous goal, respectively. Optimists, however, can point to the mental strength and resourcefulness required to gut out comebacks in the sweltering heat and humidity, and in the generally unique conditions of this event.
Speaking with media yesterday, Ben Olsen deemed the team’s mental state “good” before recognizing the demands everyone is under. “We’ve asked a lot of them. Our games have been condensed into a small window. Smaller than any other team, really, in this in this tournament,” said Olsen, adding that the quick turnaround — United faces its second game in four days, and its third in eight — comes with positives and negatives. “It’s difficult from an energy standpoint to recover and get back going. But it’s also nice to get back out there, and not have to wait seven days before your next game... We’re excited that we have we put ourselves in a spot in this third game to advance.”
The Black-and-Red will want to avoid the difficult situations they’ve found themselves in so far, with a slow first half against Toronto FC and a fade out after the opening exchanges against New England. Olsen conceded that his teams have performed better after the break in both games, but emphasized that he sees progress. “I feel like we’re growing into this tournament. Putting together a good performance over 90 minutes is certainly the goal. That hasn’t happened up to this point. But if you look at the teams and you look at the games, up until this point, it’s very, very difficult for most teams to put together a full game of quality.”
Felipe Martins, one of five players to play every second of both matches, was in agreement with Olsen. While the Brazilian noted the trials and tribulations that United has faced to even be at the tournament, he said “We don’t [have] excuses. We just haven’t been good enough in the first two halves. And in the second two halves, we haven’t been great, [but] we’ve been improving, we’ve been getting better every half, and that’s what it is. It’s a process.”
Despite knowing that his side has to be better to start this crucial Group C finale, Felipe is certainly in the glass-half-full camp. “I think we [are] improving every single day. I think we the first half against Toronto, we didn’t do well. Second half, you know, the heart and the willingness to win, everything we show in that half, that’s what is us. That’s us. The heart, the commitment, and the belief. More important, the love for this club, and to represent this club the best way possible. That’s what we showed in that [second] half,” he explained. “Now we control our own destiny. We control the outcome we can get in this tournament.”
To get the outcome they want, United is going to have to find a way past a Montreal team that has no choice but to win if they’re going to advance. Thierry Henry’s side had a broadly similar experience against New England as United did, but weren’t able to shift the game after halftime, and ultimately didn’t find a goal in a 1-0 loss. Against TFC last Thursday, however, they showed the ability to be very dangerous breaking forward, only to be undone by some poor defending in a wild 4-3 loss.
Olsen sees some similarities between United and the Impact. “I think Thierry is a very sharp guy, and I think he is in the process of figuring out — just like we are — who we are, and how we’re going to go about winning and how they’re going to go about winning games,” said the second-longest tenured coach in MLS about Montreal, who only just hired the French World Cup winner this past offseason. “They’ve had a few tweaks tactically over the last two games and even going back into the early parts of the season. So they’re a tricky team to prep for, in that you’re not exactly sure how they’re going to go about the game.”
Going into detail about how Montreal’s tendency to prefer a back three or back five, Olsen said that United faces a choice: “That causes a lot of different issues for us tactically in how you go about your defensive shape against the three-back.... How much do we want to stick with what we’re doing, and how much do we want to adjust to them is a little bit of a balance that we’ve been figuring out the last two days.”
He and Felipe both mentioned forwards Romell Quioto and Maxi Urruti as major threats to deal with, and Olsen added that he felt that the Impact were hard done-by in their last match. “I thought they were the better team against Toronto. I thought Toronto was very efficient. And I thought they caused Toronto a lot of fits, especially...with their wingbacks causing a bunch of trouble and getting in isolations.”
Veteran attacker Federico Higuain, fresh off of scoring in a second straight game off the bench, felt that United needs to make sure they focus on themselves first and foremost. “I believe it’s going to be more about us... it’s going to be the most important game for us in this tournament,” said Higuain, before later adding that he was looking forward to the game. “We know we have enough quality to play good football. [We’re] working at that. Again, it’s a beautiful game to play and I’m confident we will get the result.”
For his part, Higuain is just glad to be back on the field and involved with his new club. “I’m happy. Trust me, I’m really, really happy. It wasn’t easy for me, the last...almost one year, you know, it wasn’t easy for me,” said the 35 year old, before adding with amusement that his family was a major factor in his comeback. “They forced me, almost, they forced me to be back on the field.”
United’s attention is now firmly on Montreal, and they should be close to full strength. Long-term absentee Paul Arriola has continued his rehab back at home, and winger Emmanuel Boateng (hamstring) is the only other player on the injury report. Olsen said that Boateng “should be available” if United advances.
The only other question mark is striker Ola Kamara, who suffered a knock early in United’s opening game and was substituted at halftime. “Ola trained yesterday and today, so we’ll keep building him to see,” said Olsen. “We have another day to make sure that he passes a fitness test, and then if he passes that he’ll be available for the match, no trouble with his fitness. He’s fit. And he should be included, that would be my my guess.”
According to Olsen, the job tomorrow is simple: take the next step forward as a group. “If we get the result we need in this match, we move on. So we’ve put ourselves in a really, really good situation. And now it’s just about going out [against] Montreal and playing our best game to date.”