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Five things to watch for as D.C. United takes on the Montreal Impact

Staying composed and cutting Ignacio Piatti out of the game are keys for the Black-and-Red tonight

We’ve already talked about the lineups D.C. United and the Montreal Impact will put on the field tonight, but that only allows us to touch on the actual tactical decisions both teams will make for this game. Broadly speaking, we’ll have a clash of styles. United will look to open the game up and play quickly along the ground. Montreal, meanwhile, will sit deep looking for counterattacking opportunities through Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro.

Here are five points to look for during tonight’s game:

Establish the tempo early

If United wants to spread the game and keep the tempo up, they’re going to have to establish that from the very beginning. If the game slows down, Montreal will have an easy time maintaining their defensive structure. That would contribute to the Black-and-Red taking more attacking risks, and that sets up the Impact’s ability to counter.

It’s not just that, though. If Montreal can’t get out on the counter, they’ll at least try to keep the game small and slow, using possession as a defensive tool. This will be frustrating for United, and will likely take the crowd out of the game. That’s a classic recipe for success on the road.

Emphasize aerial advantage

The Impact have struggled all year at defending through the air. It’s just not something they’re well-equipped to do. They can add Wandrille Lefevre at center back, but that makes their defense slower and includes a player whose soccer IQ isn’t that high in a position that punishes that pretty harshly. Instead, Montreal will most likely just try to limit the number of crosses and try to make it work.

This is all great news for United, who have two gifted wingers, one of MLS’s best fullbacks in terms of crossing, and a gifted #9 with a knack of winning headers inside the box. DCU needs to make sure Lloyd Sam and Taylor Kemp, in particular, have plenty of crossing opportunities.

United also needs to make sure their set piece delivery is strong. If the service is there, Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell should have no problem winning the ball in the air. Montreal doesn’t have anyone capable of hanging with Birnbaum, and even their best player in the air (Laurent Ciman) might be at a disadvantage against Boswell.

See the job through on defensive set pieces

Montreal scored twice this year on United, and both times it came when United should have been able to fully clear the ball following a corner kick. United can be the better team in the air all they want, but if they don’t fully clear their lines, there’s always a chance that the Impact replicate these goals. With the skillful players Montreal has, shots from the edge of the box or crosses into the chaotic aftermath of a set piece are very dangerous.

Emotional control

Even without Didier Drogba, Montreal has quite a few players who are prone to losing their heads when games start to get chippy. However, they’re also a team that has a tendency to provoke their opponents, so Impact games can quickly become fractious. With the season ending for one of these teams tonight, those qualities will both be amplified.

United needs to cope with the fact that guys like Marco Donadel and Hassoun Camara are going to dive in dangerously on tackles. They’ll need to look the other way when Ciman and Piatti look to talk their opponent into a reaction. In particular, this means players like Luciano Acosta and Marcelo Sarvas need to stay calm. The Impact will surely be aware that they both tend to blow up when provoked.

Cut the field in half

United wants Oduro and Camara on the ball, not Piatti and Ambroise Oyongo. After all, when our counterparts at Mount Royal Soccer end an article with “Piatti or bust!,” they aren’t wrong.

To do that, look for an asymmetrical approach to pressure, with Mullins and United’s right side cheating forward in order to invite Montreal to play out of the back through Cabrera and Camara. In the midfield, this means working hard to ensure Donadel and Bernardello are not available as options.

Piatti is a problem every single time he gets on the ball, so United needs to make sure that happens as rarely as possible. If the Impact’s right side is having to pick the lock, so to speak, the lock probably isn’t in much danger.

Bonus: They’re not dead until they’re dead

According to my own running table on this admittedly arbitrary category, Montreal has been the best team in MLS after the 90th minute this season. They haven’t been the highest-scoring team in second half stoppage time - that’s United, actually, with a whopping nine goals - but the Impact are close behind with seven of their own. Those seven goals weren’t just padding leads either. Montreal gained six points in the standings thanks to their refusal to give up on a game.

The Impact are like a classic slasher movie villain. Until the credits are rolling, it’s best to assume that they’re still a huge threat.