Sometimes the schedule maker is your friend. By June 2nd, the Montreal Impact were cutting through MLS like a hot knife through butter, going 8W-2D-2L while beating several playoff-chasing teams and winning the Voyageurs Cup in the process. While all that was going on, D.C. United was an MLS punching bag. The Black-and-Red went 1W-2D-10L while scoring just six goals in that time. If the schedule in April or May had included a trip to scenic Montreal for DC, a historically bad loss might have been in the works.
Things have changed for both teams since then. United is still in last, but is not so colossally awful that fans can be absolutely sure we won't score a goal. While no one could reasonably call United a consistent team - unless you want to go with consistent inconsistency - being up and down is better than being just 100% down.
Montreal, meanwhile, has won only one game since the last week of June. They're on a 1W-3D-4L stretch in which they've also compiled an ugly -7 goal difference. The opponents were also a weaker group: We're talking about failing to beat any of MLS's bottom three, and conceding three or more goals on four different occasions.
Their last two matches, bar a 30 minute spell at Toyota Park, were arguably their worst two consecutive games of the season. While that first game was poor in part because of an uncommonly good United performance, the second was against a Chicago Fire side missing Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko (as well as only 19 minutes from Chris Rolfe). Let's be blunt: Chicago isn't better than mediocre even with those guys, so you can imagine how they looked without them. This is a team that, despite the addition of Spanish first division veterans, is in a really bad place at the moment. They're under pressure as their playoff spot becomes less and less sure, and they're not responding well.
Like any team in a tailspin, Montreal is looking to make changes. What to change is where things get complicated. As Patrice Bernier pointed out, their ability to out-possess Chicago would have gotten praise if Joel Lindpere's shot/cross didn't take such a wicked deflection past Troy Perkins and if Alessandro Nesta's tackle on Dilly Duka doesn't bounce perfectly for the Fire winger to carry on with his run at goal. The Impact captain is more or less correct, as the Impact were actually looking a bit like their early season selves, patiently letting the Fire chase shadows while waiting for an opening.
Here's the rub for Montreal: When forced into a more openly aggressive mode of playing - a change prompted by a double sub in the 55th minute - the Impact immediately put together their best move of the game and scored a great goal from Felipe, and then engaged in a far more open and risky game with the counterattacking Fire.
In other words, the Impact are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they play the slow, cagey style that comes with their 4141/4231, they're one bad bounce away from being in trouble. Those early season wins were virtually all 1-0 or 2-1, so there's little margin of error. If they go with their more attacking look, however, they're in a different sort of toss-up, where they can't defend well enough to stop their opponent from getting just as many (or more, as is often the case) big chances going the other way.
In the above link, defender Hassoun Camara seems to think the issue is pressuring in the right spots rather than one of formation. However, the formation is what changes everything for the Impact. With two forwards, they can press higher and force turnovers in their opponent's half, but the sacrifice is that their defense as a unit needs that extra man in the midfield to condense the space and slow their opponent down.
Head coach Marco Schallibaum has a difficult decision on his hands, and quite frankly I'm not sure which look he's going to choose. Further complicating matters is that the "Swiss Volcano" has to weigh a long trip mid-week for CONCACAF Champions League play against Guatemalan side CD Heredia against the fact that their playoff spot is slipping away with every passing MLS game. Do they send a youth team to face los Jaguares de Peten and risk CCL advancement, or do they try to mix together the A and B teams and hope to muddle through?
The answer to the latter question, in my opinion, is that they'll play their best squad against United. MLS teams in this situation, as I'm sure we all remember from 2008, will always choose the playoff race over CCL play. In this case, Montreal is probably far more worried about their road trip to San Jose to play the Earthquakes than what frankly should be one of the lesser teams in the CCL. Fixing their MLS form seems like the top priority right now.
As for the formation, this will be the rare scouting report that comes with two lineup graphics:
I'm listing the 4132 first because, to be honest, it's just what I would do. The Fire broadcast team said after Chicago's first goal that Montreal has given up 13 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches...and then they gave up another one after that. Obviously it's very risky, but United has been poor to start games as well. Montreal will be at home and in more need of a fast start psychologically than the Black-and-Red (who have nothing to lose, hooray! *sad face*).
If, however, Schallibaum thinks that the way forward is to simply attempt to do a better job of the plan they started the season with - the plan that United dealt with very well a couple weeks ago - it will probably be more like this:
The issue isn't so much midfielder Davy Arnaud or striker Daniele Paponi as the approach Montreal thinks will work best against United. From our perspective, the huge difference between the resulting Impact side will have a lot to do with how Ben Olsen should set his team out in terms of mentality.
If Montreal comes with the 4132 (a flatter 442 is also possible, but won't change things much), United needs to be ready to fight fire with fire and play a more attacking mindset than we normally would on the road. Bunkering down against this version of the Impact doesn't work, because they have enough skill and soccer IQ to break teams down despite the tight confines. The way to scare them off is to threaten their very shaky defense and force guys like Justin Mapp to think about defending more than they'd like.
If it's the five-man midfield, we've seen United effectively keep the field narrow and putting the ball under intense pressure can help restrict the Impact. That focus on generating turnovers, preventing forward passes, and making the game more about mobility and speed than soccer IQ will be harder to pull off in Montreal than it was at RFK, but it's a recipe that will serve us well if we do it correctly.
I included the previously untouchable Nesta as a question mark because he's really been looking vulnerable of late. Nesta currently looks like a far superior version of a guy you can find in any over-30 league game: His ideas and thought process are as sharp as they've ever been, but his body simply can't get him to the spots where he knows he needs to be. Nesta can see everything that's going to happen on the field, but each week he seems less and less able to actually do anything about it. If newcomer Adrian Lopez Rodriguez - a.k.a. Piscu - is fit enough to play 90 minutes, Schallibaum will eventually have to do what's right for his team and make a change.
We should hope that isn't this week, though, because the way United has looked with Luis Silva on the field gives me reason to think that we can prey upon Nesta's slow-motion performances. Chicago repeatedly created danger by going down the middle and forcing Nesta to sprint or dive in for tackles. Even if he's close enough to make some kind of contact, it may well end up being with the man and not the ball.
The other question mark is on the left wing, where Sanna Nyassi has been starting of late. The position has been in constant flux all season, though, and Nyassi's ability to play as a forward might make him useful in Guatemala mid-week. Speedy rookie Blake Smith is one possibility, as is the slower but more skilled Andres Romero. Romero seems unlikely, since he likes to cut inside in the same manner that Mapp does from the right. Montreal can already be too narrow as is, so playing Mapp and Romero as winger is probably too one-note.
Defensively, United needs to again focus on cutting off Montreal's ability to play through balls for Marco Di Vaio. It's a huge weakness for the Black-and-Red this year, but we did a fine job of preventing them at RFK. Paponi is also pretty elusive, and the angles will be very different if the Impact plays two strikers. Essentially, the pressuring will be easier given the lack of nearby options for Montreal to lay the ball off to, but the cost of getting it wrong will likely be even higher.
Another new factor is the presence of Hernan Bernardello, who has taken over as Montreal's midfield metronome. For the most part, Bernardello keeps things extremely simple; he's always available as an outlet, and he almost always plays one- or two-touch. However, when he gets within 45 yards of goal, he's always getting his head up and looking for opportunities to play the ball over the top and from the left half of the field to the right side of the 18 yard box. It's not necessarily Mapp that he's aiming at, but anyone running in behind. Daniel Woolard and James Riley need to be alert for when Bernardello looks for that pass, which he does whenever he gets the chance.
There's also the threat of Mapp, which can be summed up as "He's cutting inside to pass or shoot." United pretty much eliminated him from proceedings at RFK thanks in part to the aggressive attacking play of Riley. That particular solution might not be available with two forwards in the game, but Riley (or Dennis Iapichino?) still needs to get forward when possible and above all be a physical, battling, difficult defender for 90 minutes. Mapp shies away from that kind of challenge and doesn't have much interest in chasing after fullbacks, and the blue collar sort of game generally gets him to shut down and become a passenger.
On set pieces, Bernardello has taken over the delivery since he arrived. The results have been iffy; he got the assist on Camara's match-winner in the CCL, but he also sent several harmlessly out of bounds against Chicago (including one disastrous service in stoppage time that wouldn't be out of place in a local pick-up game). Still, when the service is on, it's very good, and Camara is an excellent target. This game could end up hinging on whether Camara can be contained by whoever - Dejan Jakovic? Perry Kitchen? Jared Jeffrey? - is assigned to mark him having success.
Mentally, the Black-and-Red should look to pounce on the Impact's tendency to start slowly. Rather than let Montreal dictate the terms, United needs to be assertive and decide how this game will be played. That will unsettle the Impact, and the pressure they're under will mount. Since we have nothing to lose, we need to play with freedom and a positive, aggressive approach. Falling behind against Montreal could easily set them up to string passes together and force us to chase, but grabbing the opener will put them into a very difficult situation psychologically.
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