Two teams diverged in a yellow wood and I, I took the one that doesn't win anything this year. That's what this weekend feels like for me as a D.C. United fan as the Black-and-Red get ready to host the Montreal Impact, who are tops in MLS on the points per game table. To help us get a handle on how L'Impact and los Capitalinos match up, I exchanged a few questions with Sofiane Benzaza, the founder and managing editor of Mount Royal Soccer, SB Nation's Impact community. You can find my answers to his questions down the page, but we'll start with his responses to mine.
Questions for Mount Royal Soccer
1. After a bit of a slide, Montreal found the winning touch again last week against East-leading Sporting Kansas City, and thanks to some games in hand, the Impact also have the best points per game mark in the league at the moment. What explains that recent 5-match winless streak, and did the win over the Sporks show that any issues have been resolved?
Fatigue, age and predictability can easily explain what the recent 5-game winless streak. The Colorado Rapids did a great job of taking advantage of the Montreal Impact's weaknesses. That included owning the midfield area where Patrice Bernier was left alone for too long.
As much as the central defense is a bit on the older side, the defensive mentality of the team has not been great. The team crashed against the New York Red Bulls, 4-0 in NJ, a sign that both teams were in opposite forms.
Did the 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City resolve anything? I will doubt that the solution comes from winning one game. The Impact is a very solid experienced team with a few talented players. But the club is also experienced enough to understand where to fill gaps. This is symbolized by the recent signings of Hernan Bernardello and Adrian Lopez.
The team might have over-achieved, just a tad, but the soccer displayed has been of excellent quality with only 2 years in MLS but with 20 years of North American soccer in the bag.
2. The Impact, somewhat famously among MLS followers, have an... experienced lineup, with several starters standing on the "wrong" side of 30. With some of those guys, like Marco Di Vaio, playing in the All Star game against AS Roma midweek, is fatigue an issue for the Impact coming into Saturday's game at RFK?
Fatigue will always be an issue for the Montreal Impact. It's not only the age factor that needs to be taken into account but the depth of the squad. With Bernardello and Lopez coming in, that issue should be taken care of.
RFK has not been hospitable at all for Montreal so I take that into account. But the way the Impact won against Sporting Kansas City, I expect the Bleus of Montreal to play the counterattack. Is that style of play a way to shelter your tired team?
It's possible and it might be necessary.
3. How doe Marco Schallibaum do it? Most European coaches struggle with the eccentricities of MLS when they first arrive from across the pond, but Montreal's Swiss coach hit the ground running in his first season on this side of the Atlantic. More impressively, he seems to have important a Continental style based on technique and intelligence rather than characteristics like speed and physicality that the league is better known for. What explains Schallibaum's success where so many before him have failed?
I am happy that I was finally asked this question. Why don`t we say that the previous European coaches were not good coaches?
Marco Schallibaum is being sheltered from the economical and specificities of MLS and only focuses on the bench. He will use his soccer IQ to manage players, rate trades/transfers and give his input. But his mandate is to win no matter where you are from and what language you speak.
Even if Jesse Marsch was let go, the 2012 momentum continued but Schallibaum implemented his ideas and his passion. I just think that Schallibaum is a good coach and you can fill in any continental or national attribute.
As much as I understand the physicality and speed of MLS, the rest of the World is very physical and very fast. I understand that MLS is more focused on the physical play but the league's best teams are very similar to the best clubs elsewhere: physical, technical and fast.
The technical style of the Impact has been so for 20 years now and players/staff will survive with the club if they fit that mold.
Any important absences? Andrew Wenger is out with a broken toe. Nesta is also not traveling.
Projected XI: Troy Perkins - Dennis Iapichino, Hassoun Camara, Matteo Ferrari, Jeb Brovsky - Patrice Bernier, Davy Arnaud, Felipe Martins - Justin Mapp, Marco Di Vaio, Sanna Nyassi
Questions for B&RU
1. So I predicted the Montreal Impact to finish 4th or 5th in the East assuming the club stays healthy. That prediction included D.C. United being in the top 3-4 of the Eastern Conference. Please, please tell me that I was not crazy to think so? Tell me that you did not the Black & Red be so bad this year?
Well, recent events would indicate that you're crazy. But also that I and many other MLS pundit-types (is that what we are?) are similarly afflicted. I'd say a majority of people who watched last season closely expected United to contend for the Eastern Conference crown this year, what with attacking talent like MLS Best XI Chris Pontius, a healthy Dwayne De Rosario and a Nick DeLeon with a year of experience under his belt. Not to mention the stellar defensive partnership of Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald in front of beastly Bill Hamid, all screened by a rapidly maturing Perry Kitchen. Hell, even Chris Korb was getting plaudits for his play at fullback. But virtually every one of those players regressed - some of them dramatically - from last season, and the departures of Andy Najar, Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi and Emiliano Dudar were not adequately replaced. Throw in some injuries and a tough schedule (that approached impossibility once the team's confidence was shot), and you have yourself a major league fall from grace that very few saw coming.
2. Soccer Culture or Culture Foot like we like to say in French. With D.C. United just announcing a new soccer-specific stadium, is this taking the club to another level financially? on the pitch? How is this transforming, changing the soccer culture in D.C and Virginia?
Financially? Absolutely, this is a game changer. The team is among the biggest money losers in MLS when they play at RFK, which has no luxury boxes and provides the team no revenue from concessions or parking (all of that is claimed by the city). Add in the rent the team has to pay for each event, and it's simply not sustainable. The new stadium will beat the situation at RFK in every one of those categories (not to mention fan experience and the buzz factor we've seen in other places like Kansas City). On the field, there's a line of thought - and it makes a lot of sense - that the new digs will make it easier for United to attract top line talent that is simply not within reach at the lovely ol' dump that is RFK. Listen to Claudio Bieler talk about the facilities at Sporting Park or Tim Cahill on Red Bull Arena or Diego Valeri on Jeld-Wen Field, and you get the impression that the first rate, brand new facilities made their decision to sign with MLS a lot easier; the same could be true for the future of D.C. United.
As for soccer culture in the D.C. region (and don't forget Maryland in there!), I think the aforementioned buzz could help make soccer - which is already pretty relevant in the area - even bigger. A state-of-the-art building can do wonders for public perception, and the possibility of moving the NWSL Washington Spirit into the city (they currently play way out in the suburbs) and of seeing a greater number of U.S. national team games will boost things, too. One potential enforced change from the current culture, though, has to do with parking: RFK stadium has lots of it, and eventually, the new stadium won't. This is going to push supporters to find a new way to tailgate before games, whether it be in public plazas or in the bars and restaurants that many of us hope will populate the area in and around Buzzard Point. It's a trade-off I have no problem accepting, though.
3. Ben Olsen still looks he can still play the game. Was he named head coach too soon in his career? With recent trades and roster changes, is D.C. United going for the 2014 MLS Draft top pick while looking for an actual effective D.P (Rafawho?)
I thought Ben Olsen was the right guy for the job at the time, and I still do. The club was in total crisis during Curt Onalfo's short time at the helm, and turning to somebody who understood the club and its history and its supporters was something that needed to happen. To their credit, the front office has stood by that decision, even through this woeful year, saying that Olsen will have the time he needs to develop as a coach. Of course, that wasn't the plan at first: When Olsen retired as a player, he was named to the staff as an assistant coach, a position it was thought he would occupy for some years as he learned the craft. Onalfo's incompetence accelerated the process considerably, pushing Olsen into the head coaching ranks much earlier than anybody had planned or hoped. At this point, he may still have some naivete, and his tactics aren't always spot on, but Olsen's ability to manage a locker room is off the charts. All that said, I think we will need to see some progress on the field between now and the end of the year before we can say with any confidence that Benny will be back for 2014.
Speaking of 2014, that #1 SuperDraft selection is looking more and more secure. With a few very strong Generation Adidas candidates appearing likely to be available at both forward and central defense - two huge areas of need for D.C. - it's going to be some small consolation for the pain of this year. Rumors of scouting trips to Europe and South America by United staff haven't resulted in any big signings as of yet, but with the relative failure of most of the club's designated players - Marcelo Gallardo, Luciano Emilio (v.2), Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi, Rafael Teixeira de Souza - one hopes that the team will do its due diligence before committing that kind of money and salary cap space to any one player. That said, the recent roster moves are encouraging; some of the best teams in the league year after year are those that build on a core of skillful, American (read: cheap) talent. Bringing in the likes of Jared Jeffrey, Conor Doyle and Luis Silva definitely puts the Black-and-Red in a better position than they were in a month ago. The hope is these kind of moves - of which we hope more are coming - will be enough to put United back into the ranks of the competent, leaving the question to be what sort of player would put D.C. over the top and back into the contenders' conversation. But I'm getting ahead of myself; right now the short-term goal is simple competence.
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Share your thoughts on the Impact and how United match up down in the comments.
More from Black And Red United:
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- D.C. United Goat of the Month for July 2013
- D.C. United Player of the Month for July 2013
- D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact lineups: Last tuneup before the U.S. Open Cup