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Opposition 11: Who will the Montreal Impact start against D.C. United?

The Didier Drogba saga is the only real question for an otherwise settled Montreal side

Heading into the MLS playoffs, every team would rather know more or less who their starters are and how they’d like to approach the game. D.C. United has figured that out, with the only questions being down to players being short of full fitness after time spent injured. The Montreal Impact is kind of in the same boat, with Mauro Biello largely preferring a 433 built around playing counter-attacking soccer.

The major story in Montreal is not about the starting lineup per se, but rather a player who won’t accept anything other than being in that group. Didier Drogba refused a spot on the bench after not being named a starter, and then missed this past weekend’s game with a back injury.

This seemed to be more of a faux injury designed to calm the waters with the media, but it turns out to be a real problem. Drogba did nothing beyond jogging at training yesterday, and both Mount Royal Soccer and Patrick Friolet of French-language TV station RDS are reporting that he will play no part tomorrow night:

That sounds like a major problem for Montreal, but the fact is that they’ve been a winning team when Drogba isn’t playing, and a losing team when he is. Every MLS coach talks about defending from the front, and Drogba doesn’t really contribute at all in that department. Montreal is a more dangerous goalscoring team with him on the field, but they’re so much weaker defensively that it doesn’t matter.

That said, losing Drogba as a sub does mean the Impact have lost their one true game-changing player off the bench. For all of Drogba’s flaws at this point, United is surely better off not seeing him standing next to the fourth official around the 70th minute or so.

Now that we’ve talked about players who won’t be involved, let’s look at the group that will take the field at RFK:

In goal, Evan Bush has been making some big saves in recent weeks, even drawing votes in a recent edition of our network’s player of the week balloting. However, one of Bush’s flaws - that is, a tendency to not control rebounds - has still been evident. Bush has the reflexes and coordination to stop difficult shots, but stopping a shot is only part of the job. Bush does not direct the shots he can’t hold that well, and that can make for some pretty glorious chances on the doorstep.

Hassoun Camara was pushed to the bench last year and part of this year, but in the back half of the season he managed to get back into Biello’s good graces by stabilizing Montreal at center back during a rough patch. He’s back on the right these days, and he’ll try to join the attack. Camara can be good going forward, but he’s also prone to positional errors and giveaways in possession. He is arguably Montreal’s best threat on set pieces, as United found out in their last meeting with the Impact.

Laurent Ciman is locked in as a starting center back, and for good reason. The Belgium national team defender is one of MLS’s best at diagnosing problems early and stepping into play to shut down attacks before they become a real worry. He’s also very reliable for Montreal in terms of playing out of the back, and his passing range means he can pick out a runner with a long ball or even a through ball on the ground. United will need to make sure he’s having to pass the ball off to another defender instead.

His partner is almost certainly Victor Cabrera, who ends up being a lot more mobile than most MLS center backs. Cabrera is a good emergency defender and has a good leap despite appearing undersized (he’s generously listed at 6’ tall). However, Patrick Mullins would still have a clear aerial advantage there, and that makes me wonder if Biello wouldn’t go with the taller, stronger Wandrille Lefevre. Lefevre is physically and mentally slower than Cabrera, but the Impact have been vulnerable in the air all year long. It’s an idea that Biello should at least take a moment to think over.

On the left, Ambroise Oyongo is underrated around MLS as an attacking threat. That might be because he hasn’t continued to rack up assists. As of July 23rd, the current Cameroonian international had five assists. Today, he has...five assists. Still, Oyongo’s speed and crossing ability need to be respected, and he’s probably the stronger 1v1 defender between Montreal’s fullbacks (Camara has a tendency to foul too often).

The Impact central midfield is on the older and slower side. Hernan Bernardello, at 30, is by far the young man in this trio, and the combined age of this midfield is 100 years old. United has shown under their new style of play that they can spread the field out, and by doing that they’ll leave this group more work to do than they can handle.

It’s an interesting group because the normal set of roles - playmaker, runner, and holder - don’t really sort out as they do with most teams. Both Bernier and Bernardello are tempo-setters by nature, so no one really stands out as a true playmaker here. Donadel sits deep, but he’s not necessarily an immobile anchor man. He loves to get stuck in and make his mark, which leaves him as a blend of holder and runner.

This group’s strength is to take up good positions as a unit - with their experience, anything less would be unforgivable - and maintain possession whenever the break isn’t on. They’re going to be weak against quick-moving attacks through the middle, though, which means Luciano Acosta might be able to slice them up if he gets on the run.

On the right wing, Dominic Oduro is the same player he ever was. Oduro’s first touch is not the cleanest, his decision-making can be erratic, and he’s not the best finisher. However, his world-class speed makes him a big threat anyway, especially on a team that will sit deep and play on the break. United wants Oduro on the ball trying to problem-solve rather than sprinting into space.

Matteo Mancosu - that’s Mancosu, not Mancuso - has been a solid addition for Montreal. He’s got 3 goals and 4 assists in 15 appearances, which doesn’t sound great. However, in that time he’s only played 772 minutes, which means he’s been extremely effective both as a starter and off the bench. Mancosu isn’t a flashy player, but he gets the fundamentals right every time, works hard, and has good soccer IQ. He’s also smart in defensive phases, which has been huge for the Impact. Their approach can’t carry any passengers, which is what Drogba has become when Montreal isn’t attacking.

That brings us to the real star attraction in Montreal. Ignacio Piatti should be on MVP ballots, and may be the best scheme-breaking player in MLS not named Sebastian Giovinco. Piatti was used as a traditional #10 upon arriving in MLS, but Biello - perhaps aware of his history on the left in Argentina - has mostly used him over there. The results can be devastating, as Piatti can still cut inside to be a playmaker while still creating penetration on the wing via his dribbling ability.

Piatti can do just about everything. He’s the best dribbler in MLS, he’s a creative passer, and he scored 17 goals this year. He’s got the physical strength to hold his own when things get physical, and he knows full well that he will have to drag this Impact team to whatever success they’re going to have.

Off the bench, Montreal have a few intriguing options. Harry Shipp could come in for one of the central midfielders if Biello wants to move to a 4231 (with Shipp in the middle and Piatti staying wide). He could also come in for Oduro on the right if the idea is to get narrow, but I’m not sure there’s a circumstance where that would benefit Montreal in this particular match-up.

Lucas Ontivero is another option able to play on the right or through the middle. Ontivero is a winger by trade, but Biello has deployed him in the middle to be primarily a second late runner into the box rather than a playmaker. Belizean winger Michael Salazar is a rather direct replacement for Oduro, offering a bit less speed but a very physically robust, high-energy approach.

In central midfield, Kyle Bekker would be a more positive addition for Bernier (who probably can’t play 90 minutes) or Bernardello. Bekker’s corner kick delivery is worth keeping an eye on, as he’s reliably able to deliver a driven cross in. Calum Mallace, meanwhile, would be a more conservative addition. The Scot is a ball-winner who adds more physicality and can cover more ground on both sides of the ball.

Johan Venegas - after mostly being on the outside with Montreal this year - seems to be back in contention. Venegas can play a bunch of different roles, even lining up deeper in the midfield in their regular season finale amid a team of second-choice players. Finally, with Drogba out, Montreal’s lone remaining out-and-out forward (beyond moving Oduro into that center forward role) is homegrown striker Anthony Jackson-Hamel. He’s still pretty raw at this point, but he stays active and brings a physical element that Mancosu doesn’t quite offer. Still, if he’s in, Montreal is either killing the game off or throwing caution to the wind.