One can be forgiven for not knowing much about what's been going on with the Montreal Impact of late. D.C. United's final regular season opponent faded out of the running for a playoff spot sometime in August, and Black-and-Red fans know full well what happens in MLS when you're not in the postseason race: You get forgotten. Ignacio Piatti is a great example of this phenomenon. On nearly any other MLS team, "Nacho" would have made huge news due to his eye-popping skill level, but being on a last-place team has meant few people around the league know much about him.
However, last place should not be seen as an indicator that Montreal is MLS's worst team right now. That title actually belongs to the Colorado Rapids, who last won a game sometime around the start of the Clinton administration. The Impact have actually lost just once in their last five games in league play, and across all competitions have only lost twice in their last nine games. Granted, they've only won two times in that same segment of games, but that's still an improvement and an indicator that Frank Klopas doesn't have a completely broken team on his hands.
On the other hand, that's not to say they're playing particularly well. Montreal just fielded a strong team against the NYRB reserves in their CCL finale but only managed a 1-1 draw. The details are more troubling: The Impact were outplayed for chunks of the game by a team with nothing to play for, and they conceded a goal on a set piece to 5'5" Connor Lade in the 85th minute.
Montreal will have some source of motivation for this one, as it will be Marco Di Vaio's final professional game. Needless to say, this is probably not how he or the club imagined things would end, and no one wants to send a beloved player off with a dispiriting loss. It won't be quite the same sort of inspiration divined from actually having a playoff spot on the line, but United fans should not expect the Impact to simply be there because they're contractually obligated to put a team on the field. They're going to put up a fight today.
Klopas won't be fielding his strongest eleven, though, and it's not because he wants to give the kids a game. Last week's utterly predictable game at BMO Field - who didn't see TFC failing to get the result, or see these unfriendly rivals end up with more things to hate about one another? - saw Montreal finish with nine men due to red cards, and Matteo Ferrari went over the yellow card limit in the process. All three suspended players are defenders, which bodes well for guys like Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson.
Adding to the short-handed nature of his roster is the fact that Piatti will probably be kept out due to knee tendonitis. The Argentine isn't the only attacking doubt: Justin Mapp, after a long layoff, played two games before missing the TFC match with a groin strain.
Finally, we come to the player United fans love to hate after his shameful tackle on Espindola likely ruined our #9's bid for an MVP nomination. Felipe's heel game is strong, as proven by his recent choice to celebrate directly in front of and gesture at Toronto's supporters groups last weekend. The villainous Brazilian might not be playing this afternoon, though, as he picked up an injury Wednesday against the Metros and was subbed out after twelve minutes. As of this writing I've seen no updates on his condition, but it seems unlikely that he'll recover from this knock (unlike his magical recovery late in that draw with Toronto). If you're making the trip up to Quebec, however, you might want to ask the local fans which luxury box the players sit in and send some boos in their direction.
That leaves an Impact eleven that will look more or less like this:
With Ferrari, Hassoun Camara, and Heath Pearce all suspended, the list of potential starting defenders is down to five. There are some variables here - Eric Miller can play on either side, and Karl Ouimette could step into any of these four spots - but my guess is that Klopas will keep things simple. The spot Ouimette is most likely to get a start at is probably in central defense, where he'll be competing with Wandrille Lefevre for a spot alongside Futty Danso. You may have forgotten that Danso was traded to Montreal this summer, and it's not just because he went to the bottom club in MLS. Danso has also barely made any appearances for Montreal, but of late he's been the center back making the bench, so one must assume he's the top choice with Ferrari and Pearce out.
In the midfield, the injuries to Piatti, Mapp, and Felipe narrow the possibilities down in a similar manner. Andres Romero and Dilly Duka will start somewhere; the question is where. Romero will play on the right unless Mapp makes a surprise recovery, and he's quietly had a good season. Romero has 6 goals cutting in from the wing, and despite his inconsistency he has to be regarded as a real threat by United. Romero is very tricky on the dribble and has a knack for making runs that get lost by defenders.
Duka has fit in surprisingly well with Montreal, and unless Piatti or Felipe can go he will start as the chief attacking midfielder. That's not the best place for him, because his good play has chiefly been down to teams having to expend so much energy defending Piatti or worrying about Di Vaio or Jack McInerney getting in behind. Duka is a complimentary player, in other words, and when teams have had to lean on him over the years he's struggled a bit. United needs to make sure they treat him with the same sort of respect they'd give Piatti, because Duka has tended to wither under that sort of attention.
Maxim Tissot should get the start out on the left provided Duka lines up centrally. He's probably better here than at left back, where he's played from time to time, but the Impact academy product is still a rather one-dimensional player. Tissot stays wide and likes to hit crosses. That's not really the best match for guys like Di Vaio and McInerney, who don't exactly have the physical tools to win aerial duels, but United still needs to be alert to Tissot's ability to hook balls in behind the defense. Crosses don't have to be in the air to be a threat against this Impact side.
Up front, Di Vaio and McInerney have been rotating of late, but it seems more likely that Montreal would want to give Di Vaio a start and then sub him off for an ovation. Even if today wasn't going to be his last pro game, McInerney played 90 in the CCL mid-week.
Di Vaio is an extravagantly skilled player, but what really makes him difficult to shut down is his ability to get in behind defenses. In MLS, most of the forwards that try to exploit how difficult offside is to call are the speedsters, the guys that don't need the advantage. Di Vaio doesn't fit that mold; he needs the advantage, and he's good at making use of it. United is going to catch Di Vaio offside several times, but if the trap isn't perfect every time, he will be running in behind and doing what he's made a career out of.
United can help themselves out on that front by pressuring intelligently further upfield. The main person to watch out for in that regard is Patrice Bernier, Montreal's captain. Normally I'd even rate guys like Pearce or Camara (who always strikes me as a player that never came to grips with the fact that he's not a midfielder) a threat, but they're out. With Duka more of a short-passing specialist, the early though balls from deep positions will almost all come from Bernier.
United needs to prevent him from making vertical passes, but should also cheat a little bit in terms of stepping up to prevent other Montreal players from passing to him. Guys like Danso and Calum Mallace know enough to know they aren't likely to deliver a perfect 50 yard through ball, so they usually look to find Bernier as soon as possible. If United takes that option off the table, we're likely to force a lot of hopeful long balls that are not at all what Di Vaio thrives on.
Montreal isn't particularly interested in keeping possession (per WhoScored, their home possession figure is the second-lowest in MLS). If the Impact were a boxer, they wouldn't be the patient guy focused on working the jab. Rather, they'd be a counter-puncher who throws a ton of haymakers.
Going forward, United will have such an abundance of options that it almost feels like being spoiled. At right back, Miller is still only 21 and looks like he still has plenty to learn. In central defense, we're looking at the guys who can't get a game for a team that has struggled at center back all season. On the left, Krzysztof Krol was given a second chance in MLS by Frank Klopas for reasons I will never understand.
With Miller, the best solution is to present him with complicated decisions and/or a lot of moving parts. On the other side, Krol is too slow and can be caught dallying on the ball. Down the middle, there's a distinct lack of focus. Danso is, if anything, more comfortable scrambling to provide emergency cover than he is at the sort of back-to-goal defending that good teams produce. Lefevre, meanwhile, looks a bit clumsy and like Krol can be beaten for quickness.
So getting past the back four shouldn't be an issue, but this 4231 means the Impact have a one-man advantage in the midfield. The good news is that Romero is a converted forward who doesn't defend with much vigor, and Duka tends to want to stay high as much as possible. That, along with the deep starting points for Bernier and Mallace, leaves gaps that Montreal struggles to fill. United may actually be able to dominate possession if Lewis Neal is chosen to start in place of Davy Arnaud, whose ankle is being rested for the playoffs.
On set pieces, Montreal does have some good targets in the form of Danso, Lefevre, and Mallace. However, they have scored a grand total of zero set piece goals in MLS this season. Part of the issue is a lack of any particularly gifted set piece taker, but the bigger problem is that they lack the sort of mentality that leads to set piece goals. There's a lack of aerial aggression and a certain lack of hunger to win 1v1 battles in the box.
Naturally, those problems pop up at the other end, but an even bigger problem is a lack of focus. The Impact are the kind of team that seems to have everyone covered only to completely lose their marks once the ball is in the air. It's bizarre given the number of veterans they field in defense, which makes me wonder how much set pieces are even emphasized at all in training. Regardless of the cause, this is an avenue for United to create some real danger.
On the balance, United should be able to use this game as one last confidence boost before the playoffs begin. The Impact are tired in the midfield, starting a new-look defense, and will likely be selling out on offense to set Di Vaio up for a goal. However, therein lies a problem: Unabashedly trying to feed Di Vaio might actually be a better attacking strategy for l'Impact than anything else they can produce without Piatti or Mapp.