Talking about teams on short rest is a very strange situation for the first week of March, but that's exactly the situation that faces both D.C. United and the Montreal Impact this weekend. United is out of the CONCACAF Champions League after two fractious games with LD Alajuelense, while l'Impact managed an enormous upset in eliminating Mexico's Pachuca on a last-gasp goal by rookie Cameron Porter. Montreal will in fact advance to face La Liga in the semifinals, and I sincerely hope they beat them in a manner that forces LDA to no longer exist as a club.
Bitterness aside, the Black-and-Red got what on paper is a plum MLS season opener: At home against the Impact, who finished dead last in the East last season. This isn't last season's Impact though. Joey Saputo has a reputation for being too zealous about change for change's sake, but there was little reason for him to retain most of last year's core players. Some teams find themselves at the bottom of the standings due to bad luck with injuries or because the habit of losing is hard to overcome psychologically; Montreal was there because they had bad players all over the place.
The clean-out mostly came in defensive positions. Troy Perkins, Matteo Ferrari, Heath Pearce, Krzysztof Krol, Jeb Brovsky, and Karl Ouimette are all gone, as are holding midfielders Hernan Bernardello and Gorka Larrea. Some of these players have been replaced without an acquisition: Perkins had lost the starting GK job to Evan Bush down the stretch last year, while Calum Mallace appears ready for a more prominent role in the engine room. Even some regulars who were retained, like Hassoun Camara and Eric Miller, now find themselves apparently second-choice to newcomers.
Of course, you don't end up at the bottom of the standings based on defense alone. Montreal had one of the lowest goal-scoring rates in MLS as well, and that was with the now-retired Marco Di Vaio. In that department, they've kept the creators (Ignacio Piatti, Justin Mapp, Dilly Duka, and Andres Romero) together but added some strikers. Di Vaio has been replaced by Dominic Oduro, while the aforementioned Porter looks to be a more important player for Frank Klopas than was expected after he was picked in the 3rd round.
On paper, the Impact look to have gotten stronger. Not so much that they look like a contender at the moment, but enough that they won't be pushovers. "On paper" is a big qualifier, obviously, but their CCL performance at least confirms that this team can play. It's a very small sample size, but there were elements in their performances against Pachuca that point to the theoretical improvements potentially being tangible for 2015. There was a coherent gameplan that everyone on the field was following. The central midfield made it hard to play. Watching the back four defend did not remind observers of watching clowns pile out of a car at the circus. Pachuca certainly underestimated the Impact in both legs, but Montreal still earned their advancement.
The mid-week exertions make predicting Montreal's lineup tricky. The Impact were at home, but "home" at this time of year is the hard turf of Stade Olympique rather than Stade Saputo's grass. Pachuca piled up possession in both legs, so Montreal did a lot of thankless running. In central midfield, they're fielding three over-30 players who all gave reason to suspect the possibility of a rotation: Marco Donadel was subbed off in both legs, Nigel Reo-Coker looked exhausted around the 70th minute both on the road and at home, and Piatti struggled last season with both tendinitis in his achilles and bursitis in his knee.
As such, I'm going to put forward two different Impact lineups, mostly based around whether "Nacho" - who is a tremendously talented and entertaining attacking midfielder - is held out or not. Current cutting-edge thought on soccer recovery times points to four days as the minimum for a player to play at his regular level without increasing injury risks, and four days is what the Impact will have.
First, the 4231 that would normally be first-choice:
In the back, I think the Impact will stick with Bush, Bakary Soumare, and Laurent Ciman. Keepers and center backs are usually the last players you see rotated, though I'm not so sure Ciman is a guaranteed starter. It's not that the Belgian played poorly against Pachuca or looked like he had an injury; rather, Ciman is already MLS's most active center back, roving all over the damn place when the Impact are attacking. At one point against Pachuca, in a 0-0 game and with the Impact basically hanging on for dear life, Ciman's attempt to join a counter attack saw him one return pass away from breaking in on goal. Only Oduro was further forward, and if the one-two had been completed Ciman would have been in the Pachuca penalty area. This was from the run of play.
So on one hand, Ciman is clearly insane. On the other, he's the Impact's biggest acquisition and was on Belgium's World Cup team, so you have to think Klopas will play him if he's at all able to go. It's just that he covers so much more ground than a normal center back that you have to wonder how he'll hold up after a game on turf. I'd expect Wandrille Lefevre to step in if Ciman can't go.
At right back, new signing Victor Cabrera was surprisingly chosen ahead of incumbent Hassoun Camara in both legs. I expect to see Camara start at RFK, though, because Cabrera was given a ton of running to do by Pachuca in the second leg, and because Camara is an MLS veteran at this point. However, Camara is also prone to some rash decisions in every department, so while Cabrera doesn't appear to be anything special I'd rate this as a win for United. Camara should be attacked throughout, and he should be attacked on the ground rather than in the air.
At left back, Klopas has options. Maxim Tissot was an unused sub in both CCL legs, so if Donny Toia is rested - and I expect he will be for the same reasons that applied for Cabrera - I suppose he has the advantage. However, Miller played plenty of minutes at left back last year as well, and he's the better defensive player (Tissot is probably a better midfielder than he is a defender). Ambroise Oyongo would be in contention, but he rejects the idea that he is an Impact player due to a contract dispute involving his old club in Cameroon, the Cameroonian soccer federation, and the New York Red Bulls, and was not a part of their preseason. Regardless of who plays, this will be a weak point for l'Impact at least as much as right back.
In defensive midfield, I am sure enough of a rotation that I'm including Mallace as a starter. Mallace may be ready to make the next step up in MLS and become a player of consequence. It was his divine 60 yard pass that Porter converted in the 94th minute to knock off Pachuca; if he can even come close to that sort of ball with any regularity, he will threaten Serie A import Donadel and/or former Premier League starter Reo-Coker for first-choice minutes. As things stand, he seems like a sure starter against United.
The other spot is much more complicated. Donadel or Reo-Coker could both stay in alongside Mallace. Club captain Patrice Bernier will certainly merit consideration, and may in fact be the favorite. Offseason acquisition Eric Alexander played this role in 2014 for the Metros, but I'm not sure if Klopas sees him as a holding player or as a wide midfielder. Alexander can play virtually anywhere, and he's definitely a starting-quality player, so don't be surprised if he's on the field at kickoff Saturday.
In fact, Alexander is just as much in the running to play on the left as he is centrally. Dilly Duka impressed against Pachuca, but durability has always been an issue for him. Alexander doesn't have Duka's speed or dribbling ability, but he's better in possession. If Klopas wants to stretch the field out - both horizontally and vertically - he could instead opt for classic winger Blake Smith, who returns after spending 2014 on loan with Indy Eleven of the NASL.
On the right, Mapp has similar injury issues to those that Duka has yet to prove he can overcome long-term. Mapp is vital to Montreal's 2015 hopes, so we could see him rested in favor of Romero. The Argentine quietly scored 6 goals in 2014, and though he's not as tricky or skillful as Mapp or Duka he is a similar player. If Romero plays, United's main imperative to keep him quiet is to show him out wide and force him to be an old-school wide man. He would much rather cut inside and run the channels, and that's where he scores his goals from. Stuck out on the touchline, he's not much of a threat.
Up top, I would have told you that Jack Mac was definitely going to start this game once it became clear that Oduro was the apparent first-choice. However, it was Porter that Klopas turned to first down in Mexico, and it was Porter who produced the critical goal to seal a spot in the CCL semifinal round. I'm inclined to think Klopas wants to use Porter as a super-sub for the time being, but between that and McInerney's rather indifferent 12 minute appearance in the second leg, it's approaching a toss-up in my mind.
If McInerney plays, it's easy to say what United will be up against. McInerney is a typical goal-poacher: He's not great as a hold-up player, he's not particularly athletic (save for good agility), and he's not a gifted passer or dribbler. What he brings is a great sense of where to be inside the box, and when he's confident his finishing is excellent. With Porter, I think there's less of a refined sense of where to be and more speed and strength. Porter's not a classic target man by any means, but he's more well-rounded in my book than McInerney. Long-term, this is a fascinating positional battle, especially when you consider that Oduro is hardly known for his consistency.
I said there would be two formations discussed here earlier, so we have to talk about a potential 442. First of all, it was clear that Klopas wanted his team to defend out of a 442 in both legs against los Tuzos. The key is Piatti; when Montreal gets the ball, he doesn't burst forward like Oduro and the wingers do, which allows them to revert to the 4231 you see above. It's a reminder that formations, no matter how much we obsess over them, are just shorthand.
Anyway, without Piatti it's hard to see Klopas sticking with the exact same look. If he's rested, I expect Montreal to play a simple 442 in both attacking and defensive phases. Here's how that would look:
Most of the same issues apply here, though I think Alexander is unlikely to appear on the left in this formation. We'll see a less intricate and less skillful Impact without Piatti, but with two strikers there's still some danger. I'm not sure Porter and McInerney are an entirely compatible partnership, but Klopas doesn't have a better option without Piatti. There's no lesser #10 on the roster, so I'd expect this if Piatti is to be rested.
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at Montreal's tactical approach and what strengths and weaknesses to pay attention to.