September has not been a good month for D.C. United, but they may be playing the Montreal Impact at just the right time. The bleu-blanc-noir will be without Defender of the Year candidate Laurent Ciman and starting winger Andres Romero due to suspension, while playmaker Ignacio Piatti has gone back to Argentina to be with his ailing father. On top of all that, Montreal had to gut out a Wednesday night win over Chicago, while United's regulars were able to rest for Tuesday's CCL win. Here's how they can make all of those circumstances pay off and get back in a winning groove:
Bully Drogba rather than get bullied by Drogba
Didier Drogba has belied the talk of him being in offseason shape by looking like a bull in a china shop against MLS defenses. The last two games have provided us with concrete examples. First, look at his goal Wednesday (which involves straight-up heaving Jeff Larentowicz out of the way to score):
That follows last weekend, where Chris Tierney's attempt to get leverage on Drogba from an initially superior position ended with him losing ground and fouling the Ivorian legend. Drogba's powerful free kick took a deflection, went in, and essentially buried the Revs at 2-0 down with half an hour to go on the road.
There are multiple lessons here. Larentowicz tried to straight-up foul Drogba as he made his run, knowing that the ball was headed out wide and the refereeing crew would be focused out there. The problem? Drogba is a very strong man, and not only fought off the foul but ended up tossing Larentowicz aside just before the ball arrived. No foul was called because...well, in all likelihood it's because refs are going to defer to an international superstar. So the lessons there are a) Drogba is strong enough to fight off your fouls, and b) Drogba gets the Beckham/Henry treatment from refs, so he will get away with more than the usual MLS striker.
Tierney's defeat at the hands of Drogba is similar. Here, he got called for something that is often let go in MLS, and was only resorting to a foul because Drogba out-muscled him initially.
United's defenders have to be ready for a bigger test than normal. In particular, Steve Birnbaum needs to be hyper-aware when stepping in to challenge Drogba when the ex-Chelsea striker has his back to goal. Birnbaum has been struggling for the past 2+ months with target men in that situation, and Drogba is better than, say, Devon Sandoval. Any over-commitment to one possibility, and Drogba's going to shed his defender. Any attempt to physically challenge him better be a sure thing involving plenty of leverage, or he'll fight it off. And any gray-area challenge that normally goes uncalled is going to get called.
Be in position to shut down Montreal's attacks in transition
Despite the changing of the guard as far as the head coach goes, this Impact side is still a counterattacking team first and foremost. Mauro Biello has wisely decided not to try and reinvent his side in mid-September; even if he were inclined to do so, the roster is clearly built to play on the break.
First and foremost, United can't let the ball move quickly through the midfield. Slowing play down is usually a good idea as a road team unless your whole approach is based on mashing the gas pedal down a la NYRB or KC. United is very different from those clubs, so a slower tempo will favor them. Making a Montreal side that will be missing Laurent Ciman - easily their best distributor out of the back, he has field vision that would make some attacking midfielders jealous - as well as Ignacio Piatti and Andres Romero.
Those latter two really tend to be the guys that drive the Impact forward, so their absences are a boon for United. However, Johan Venegas has faced DCU 3 times wearing 2 different jerseys this season and looked good every time. Whether he's used on the right or in the middle, he'll likely take over as the chief decision-maker when it comes to breaking forward. United needs to keep him suffocated all game long in order to gum up the works for the Impact.
Going further on this topic, United also needs to be very aware of their positioning even in possession. You can take up good attacking positions that come with too much risk in the event that a turnover pops up before you get the ball, and a team like the Impact will be looking for those mistakes all game long. That's not to say United should take no risks with regards to their off-the-ball movement; after all, risk-free play tends to end in losses. They just have to be very smart, and also very secure in possession. If they want to roll the dice, it needs to be done away from central midfield and outside of their own defensive half. Everyone on the field needs to be ready and able to transition to good defensive positions immediately following a loss of possession; one slip-up is all the Impact need right now.
Be the duper, not the dupee
Shouts to Frank Reynolds for the advice. Montreal is the least-disciplined team in MLS at home, though I attribute that at least partially to having a fired-up, emotional coach in place for most of the season. Biello seems calmer, and I was thinking maybe the Impact might chill out some...only to then watch them pick up 4 second half yellow cards against Chicago (including 2 for Ciman, who will once again be unavailable against United). There's also a weird mix of players on their roster: There are plenty of hotheads, to be sure, but there are also a few guys who simply don't have the awareness to tone it down when the ref has already given them a talking-to.
Anyway, all of this adds up to a glaring weakness for United to exploit. They need to maintain a tough edge throughout, but it has to remain under control. If United and Montreal are exchanging hard tackles and it's the Impact having the more pronounced reaction, things are going well for the Black-and-Red. I'm not endorsing outright provocation here; rather, the idea is to simply play hard and watch the Impact spin out. That means no retaliating, Fabian Espindola.
Dominate on defensive set pieces
The Impact have 28 goals at home, but only 15 have come from open play. 9 times, they've scored on a set piece, and that's a big worry even with Ciman missing. The Impact are usually pretty good service-wise despite not having a particularly large number of big targets.
Simply put, United can't let up a set piece goal in this one. Given their road scoring issues, they simply can't give up any cheap goals, and even the best set piece goal has to be considered a cheap one to give away when you look at the numbers in the box (we're often talking about 7-9 defenders against 4-5 attackers). If United can make their 18 yard box a no-go zone on free kicks and corners, they'll be taking away a huge factor in the Impact's ability to scoure at Stade Saputo.
So what's the recipe? It's nothing complicated. United just needs to mark tight, avoid falling for picks or decoy runs, and clear the ball correctly. Sometimes, good old fashioned commitment and focus can go a long way.