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D.C. United Scouting Report: Montreal Impact

The Montreal Impact's emphasis on counterattacking soccer and their ability to play through balls could mean a long night for D.C. United. On the other hand, United has done sort of well when playing narrow against teams that are patient in possession and field five-man midfields.

Reducing Patrice Bernier's influence tonight should be job #1 for D.C. United.
Reducing Patrice Bernier's influence tonight should be job #1 for D.C. United.

The Montreal Impact are something of an anomaly in MLS. It's not just the use of French, or the choice to have two different predominantly blue uniforms. The Impact's emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground and hitting teams on the counter is rather unusual. Possession teams in MLS generally try to play on the front foot as much as possible, while our counterattacking teams are often more focused on athleticism and longer passes out of the back than they are the technical ability required to connect several passes at a high speed through the midfield.

It mostly comes down to how the Impact are built. Their best defensive midfielder (Patrice Bernier) is more of a deep-lying playmaker who clogs up passing lanes and anticipates opposing attacks rather than the more common hard-tackling tough guy we often see in that role. Up top, Marco Di Vaio is often by himself despite being very generously listed at 5'11" (i.e. not the typically big target forward we see all the time in MLS).

The emphasis on keeping the ball, playing on the counter, and creating most of their chances on through balls is a big problem for United, who has struggled badly against that sort of team this season. I know you're thinking "well yeah, we struggle against everyone," but of late we've been particularly bad against through ball-heavy teams like Chicago - 6 goals against us in our two matches thus far - and Seattle. Throw in the good fortune and stellar Joe Willis performance it took to survive against a possession-heavy Colorado side, and you can see why this game is a very difficult fixture for D.C. United.

On the other hand, our relative success against the New England Revolution points to a way forward. United has played very narrow against the Revs, and as was discussed at length in About A Goal earlier this week, it eventually went wrong for us. However, if United had kept a better shape, it's likely that the Revs wouldn't have gotten that tying goal. The narrow approach was making life difficult for Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe, and Jay Heaps burned a sub at halftime to add the more technical Scott Caldwell to the midfield in an effort to make his team better at dealing with the lack of space.

That could well be the recipe for success against Montreal, who have had issues when central midfield is flooded with opposing players. As much as Justin Mapp has gotten plaudits for his play on the right wing, the fact is that his success is based on cutting inside rather than rounding his man down the endline and whipping in a cross like a traditional winger. Throw in the fact that the Impact fullbacks are not as good at crossing the ball as Chris Tierney, and it's fair to say that the Impact are a team you can keep your team narrow against. There just isn't the quality (or in Mapp's case, the style) of wing play to draw teams out of the middle.

Marco Schallibaum has some issues to confront tonight as well, given that his side's most vital CONCACAF Champions League (side note: If you're like me, you will not be getting much sleep in the coming months as a result of the CCL's return) match is this Wednesday at Stade Saputo against the San Jose Earthquakes. The pared-down nature of the CCL these days means that losing your opener - or not winning your first home game - essentially requires winning your remaining three matches to go through.

Montreal has a proud history in the CCL, having gone to the quarterfinals in the 2008-2009 edition, where it took two stoppage-time second leg goals by Carlos Darwin Quintero for Santos Laguna to eliminate the USL edition of the Impact. The fact that they open this year's tournament against MLS opposition likely means that Schallibaum will be tempted to rest some of his older players. We already know from Mount Royal Soccer's Sofiane Benzaza that Alessandro Nesta did not fly down to the District, while oft-used substitute Andrew Wenger has a broken toe.

That complicates any prediction of the starting eleven, as does Montreal's recent move away from a 4132 back to the five-man midfield they used at the start of the season. It's also hard to say how that group will actually line up; in last week's match against Sporting Kansas City, Montreal started in a 4141 but very quickly ended up in a 4231 (except for the times where it looked a lot more like a 4411). The point is to expect a fluid formation, regardless of personnel:


With Nesta kicking back in Quebec, the most likely back four will see normal right back Hassoun Camara move inside, left back Jeb Brovsky shift out to the right, and Dennis Iapichino come in on the left. Montreal has used this back four more than a handful of times in 2013, so unfortunately for United it's doubtful they'll be particularly disorganized as a result. Matteo Ferrari isn't the organizer when Nesta plays, but he's more than capable of taking on that role and has plenty of experience himself.

New signing Adrian Lopez Rodriguez - a.k.a. Piscu - appears to be eligible, but is likely not ready in terms of fitness given that he's coming in following the Spanish offseason. I would be shocked to see him play this early after only starting to train with the Impact this week. New defensive midfielder/Designated Player Hernan Bernardello is also eligible, and that's more relevant for today's game. Bernardello was last with Club Atlético Colón in the Argentine 1st division, where the season only ended on June 23rd. It is possible that Bernardello is fit enough to play some part today; if he were to start, I'd expect him to step into Davy Arnaud's linking role, where Schallibaum wants a tough, hard-working player to win balls so that guys like Bernier and Felipe can focus on creating.

Speaking of Bernier, the 33 year old may be a candidate to rest at the start of this match after having played 45 minutes in Wednesday's All Star Game in KC. That's extra travel and extra minutes for a player the Impact can't afford to lose ahead of their CCL match. Collen Warner is the likely replacement, though I'm still listing Bernier as the most likely starter.

Di Vaio is listed with question marks for the same reason as Bernier: He too is getting towards the end of his career, and he played the entire first half for the All Stars. The Impact's leading scorer is a joy to watch, but you can't just send him out to play 90 over and over again with no rest forever. The injury to Wenger just adds to Schallibaum's issues, as a Di Vaio injury would leave him with just one specialist striker (Italian loanee Daniele Paponi). There is a reasonable chance that we'll see Paponi get the start instead, and while he's not quite as smart and elusive as Di Vaio is, he's still a skillful player that United will have issues with keeping track of.

Felipe is also listed with question marks here, but that's more about form. Bernardello's arrival has left the Impact with some heated competition for time, and Felipe in 2013 looks like a shadow of the guy that was a constant threat in 2012. Andres Romero - normally seen on the wing - and Warner could both step into Felipe's role if Schallibaum wants to rest him or start preparing to go in another direction. Romero came on for Felipe in this role last week, and his last wide appearance saw him treated to the Tom Soehn pre-halftime substitution. If Wenger weren't hurt, I'd be curious about the possibility of more of an empty bucket 442, but that seems doubtful at this point.

Sanna Nyassi - a.k.a. the better Nyassi - is listed as the left winger here, but realistically there are several candidates for the job given Montreal's fixture list and the general rotation that position has seen all season long. Andrea Pisanu is also a potential option, but for me the guy most likely to displace Nyassi is rookie Blake Smith. Smith was last seen scoring a 96th minute game-winner against the Sporks, a huge result against a fellow Eastern Conference high-flyer. Smith has taken a while to get his legs under him as a first round pick, but he's making strides adjusting to the more technical approach Montreal favors. He and Nyassi both offer up tremendous speed, which Montreal uses to stretch teams vertically.

We've discussed the importance of staying narrow against the Impact, and a big part of that is Bernier. He's one of MLS's few actual deep-lying playmakers. Unlike Osvaldo Alonso and Kyle Beckerman - both metronomes who keep their team's rhythm but aren't relied upon to supply the final ball - Bernier is his team's chief source of creativity. What makes him even more difficult to stop is that he's an expert at picking the right time to step higher up the field and involve himself in attacking moves. The latest example: Smith's winner last week came after he dummied a pass on for Di Vaio, who then slotted Smith in behind the defense.

If United does nothing else right tonight, the most important thing they can do to slow the Impact down is to make life difficult for Bernier. This is going to require a team-wide effort. While Luis Silva and our central midfielders will be the most common players required to press Bernier and force him into backwards passes, the rest of the team needs to be ready to fill in centrally when those players are occupied. Furthermore, our striker will have to help back as well, while also providing an extra obstacle between the Impact defense and Bernier, who often drops back to collect short passes from the Montreal back four. The less influential Bernier is, the more likely United is to spring an upset here.

Defensively, United's main issue is going to be through balls, and unfortunately this is something we are very, very bad at dealing with. The requirements are always the same: Good positioning, narrow gaps to pass through, and strong anticipation of when and where the through ball is coming from. Unfortunately, these things require focus, discipline, and communication, all of which are United weaknesses at the back. Bill Hamid's probable return could help out, as he's a stronger communicator than Joe Willis and is also faster off his line.

Another way to fix this glaring issue is for United to consider playing a deeper line. Montreal will probably be playing on the counter all game long, but countering against a team playing a deeper defensive line is difficult. United has often tried to play "the right way" at home: A higher line, an attacking mindset, and an emphasis on imposing ourselves on the visitor. Unfortunately, the book on United is out, and every team knows they can just sit back and absorb the pressure until the inevitable horror show happens in the back. A deeper line and a more patient approach in possession won't make DCU more entertaining, but in this match it would be the more effective way to deal with the Impact.

The final worry with the Impact is Mapp, who is finally playing at a level to match his unearned reputation in MLS. Mapp is heavily left-footed, but plays as an inverted winger on the right because he loves to cut inside on the dribble. I can't emphasize this enough: If Mapp is 1v1, his first, second, and third options are all "cut inside." There is no good reason to show him inside, because that's where he wants to go. No matter who United plays at left back - I'd prefer to see the competitive Chris Korb out there, as Mapp doesn't like to find himself in battles - the idea should be to show Mapp outside every single time. Once you get Mapp going outside, he usually opts to cross low or cut back onto his left foot to lay the ball back, which is something the rest of United's midfield and defense will need to be ready for.

Going forward, it's important that United find a way to get after Iapichino, who is hardly an eye-catching player at left back. There's nothing wrong with his game, but he's still only 23 and is more of a player who lacks glaring weaknesses than one who has some great single quality. He also tends to foul a lot, and Montreal has hardly been rock-solid defending set pieces in 2013. Ideally, we'll see Nick DeLeon line up at right midfield and take the approach that we've seen from him in the Open Cup (i.e. "I'm going to beat this guy on the dribble all day long").

In possession, United has to keep the ball moving quickly. Arnaud has made a career out of his willingness to run, and Bernardello - if he plays - has a reputation of being a very hard worker as well. If United plays the patient possession style I'm advocating, they can't afford to get bogged down centrally without risking turnovers. Between the hard work we'll see in the linking role and the soccer IQ Bernier brings to the table, any dallying will turn quickly into the Impact taking the ball and looking to move forward.

It's interesting that this match has strong reasons to be pessimistic - through balls and counters have been fatal for United all year long - but also a reason to be optimistic. Our ability to restrict the Revolution to a low number of chances in every meeting in 2013 has come from staying narrow and forcing a team that doesn't want to play the traditional "wingers stay wide and cross in the air" sort of game down the flanks to do exactly that. United's one loss to New England came due to poor execution of the correct plan, and that plan is our best bet against a Montreal team that may have one eye on Wednesday (sound familiar?). Given that United has repeatedly produced good performances in pairs, playing well tonight would bode well for an otherwise difficult-looking Open Cup semifinal.

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