For D.C. United, it's a good time to be facing the Montreal Impact. It's been a somewhat common refrain on this site, but we have to admit that United has a knack for playing teams when they're missing a key player or on short rest. Today, they'll do both: Montreal played Wednesday night, and in the process they lost Laurent Ciman for tonight due to his picking up two yellow cards against the New York Red Bulls.
How important is Ciman to Montreal? The Belgian is, at least in my reckoning, the runaway leader for MLS's Defender of the Year award. I'd even argue that a hard-line, literalist approach to the MVP award would require seriously considering Ciman. Not only is Ciman the brains of Montreal's defense, but in terms of his passing and vision he's as dangerous as anyone on their roster not named Ignacio Piatti. In putting him in spots where he could pick up those yellows, NYRB has done us a great service.
Ciman's organizational sense and his soccer IQ allow Montreal to take risks that are now off the table against United, while his passing would allow them to open the field up much more. Montreal does not have a defender anywhere near as smart to replace him with, and in terms of distribution the gap is even greater. As such, we might see a more narrow, conservative Impact side than they normally are at home.
However, Ciman's absence won't result in a formation change. Frank Klopas has stuck with a 4231 all season long, and that won't change tonight:
Evan Bush has been steady in goal for Montreal. He's not a top-tier goalkeeper, but he's good coming off his line and is capable of making big saves. If he has a weakness, it's in coming off his line to claim crosses in traffic. Bush doesn't have the power to bully his way through crowds in the box, so creating a mosh pit in front of him on corner kicks could be effective.
In central defense, Victor Cabrera is the reason Bakary Soumare ended up expendable. The young Argentine is slightly undersized for a center back, but he's athletic enough to make up the difference. He's also capable enough with the ball at his feet, though he doesn't really have the sort of passing range that United has to look out for. He'll be partnered by Wandrille Lefevre, who has some big shoes to fill in with Ciman out. Lefevre's background is odd: He signed a Homegrown deal with Montreal at 24 years old, and only just recently got Canadian citizenship (he was born in France). Lefevre isn't a bad player, but he lacks agility and can struggle when having to turn and face his own goal.
Ambroise Oyongo and Donny Toia are likely the starting fullbacks. They're the first choice players right now, but on short rest teams usually look to rotate at right or left back first. Eric Miller is the first option to step in if one needs a rest (with Oyongo either resting or switching to left back if Toia is given the night off). Oyongo was previously known as being an attacking left back - or even a left winger - in New York, but Klopas has used him as a right back. Both he and Toia like to push up high at Stade Saputo, whereas Miller is less capable going forward. Nigel Reo-Coker is also an option at right back, while Hassoun Camara - who has been out for quite a while due to injury - may be available as well.
Reo-Coker seems likely to be needed in the midfield, however. Montreal will need fresh legs somewhere, and the engine room seems like a good spot to freshen up. Calum Mallace has taken a step forward in his career to become a regular starter, but he might require a rest. Marco Donadel will return from suspension to man the other spot, and he's an odd player. Donadel can score amazing goals or open the field up with long-range passes, but on many nights he seems most adept at getting himself booked and otherwise not being a major factor in the game. If United pressures him, it's likely to be another game where you wonder how he played for so long in Serie A.
Further forward, it seems highly likely that Piatti will start. Montreal is already in a bad enough spot without Ciman; resting Piatti is pretty much not an option if they're interested in taking 3 points. Piatti is Montreal's top scorer this season, as well as their top assist man. The Argentine is tremendously entertaining to watch, and his quick feet allow him to take what for most players would be a fatal extra touch. United needs to worry about Piatti in particular when play transitions quickly upfield. Montreal usually likes to enter the attacking third on the flanks, but rest assured they're focused on finding Piatti running through the middle.
On the wings, Andres Romero and Dilly Duka are currently first choice, but this is another spot where rotation is a strong possibility. Johan Venegas - you know, the man who scored twice against United for Alajuelense in the CCL a few months back - could get his first Impact start on either wing. Both Romero and Duka are threats on the dribble, and Romero in particular is a goalscoring threat (the only Montreal players to score more than him in 2014 were Marco Di Vaio and Jack McInerney).
Up top, Didier Drogba is believed to be unlikely to play any part in this match. Montreal wants to get him fit after the European offseason rather than just tossing him into games (imagine that!). Dominic Oduro is probably going to start despite playing 180 minutes in the previous 7 days. Montreal traded away McInerney, and their other true forward - Anthony Jackson-Hamel - has 239 career MLS minutes spaced over 9 appearances. Venegas could step in up front as well if Oduro is in danger of an overuse injury, but in all likelihood the Papa John's-loving Ghanaian will be up top. That means United has to be vigilant on balls over the top; NYRB failed to do so last week and conceded as a direct result. Everyone knows Oduro's game at this point: Amazing speed, questionable decision-making, and finishing that is basically a roll of the dice. Still, he scores goals regularly enough because his speed gives him enough chances to make it work.
Off the bench, Venegas (or whoever doesn't start in the wide midfield positions) seems like a lock to come on. Klopas loves to bring in a central midfielder, so don't be surprised if the non-starter from Mallace and Reo-Coker steps in. Patrice Bernier would be a candidate for the job, but a social media outburst from his wife over his lack of playing time has caused enough of an uproar that Montreal's club captain is taking a few days away from the club and will not feature tonight. Jackson-Hamel could see some playing time up front as well, as asking Oduro to play a lone forward role for 270 minutes in a week is probably a bad idea. However, if Drogba surprisingly suits up, you can bet the rent check that he'll sub in.