Let’s talk about a little good news and a little bad news for D.C. United. The good news about tonight’s opponent, the Montreal Impact, is that they’ve only managed to win three of their last fourteen games. The bad news is that the capital club needs wins, and Montreal has just one loss in their last eight games. Good news? The Impact have never come to RFK Stadium and won. Bad news? The Black-and-Red have never had to host a Montreal team featuring both Ignacio Piatti and Didier Drogba.
Mauro Biello shifted l’Impact to a 433 when he first took over last year, but has consistently deployed a 4231 this season:
Evan Bush will get the start in goal, and he’s a solid shot-stopper who shows impressive bravery despite being a bit lean for an MLS goalkeeper. However, he does have issues with deciding when to come off his line, and has shown a tendency to try to run through traffic that he’ll never be able to clear out. On set pieces and even long throw-ins (now that Nick DeLeon is attempting them fairly regularly), United might be able to snatch a cheap goal off of a mistake in that department.
Hassoun Camara seemed to be an afterthought last season, but he has done fairly well this year after overcoming an injury early in the year. With Donny Toia and Ambroise Oyongo both missing chunks of the season, Camara has responded to the opportunity by playing right around his ceiling. Of course, that ceiling still comes with some flaws: Camara can be very rash with his tackles, and can occasionally be far too confident in his ability on the ball. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see United try to feed some balls to the left in an effort to test him early. Toia was the right back last week, but only because Camara was needed in the middle.
Going back to Oyongo, the Cameroon international has been quietly among the better attacking fullbacks in MLS this season. He has 5 assists in 15 appearances, including a pair in last week’s 5-1 demolition of the Philadelphia Union. The Black-and-Red need to provide enough of an attacking threat down the right to force him to stay home more often and focus on defending. Lloyd Sam has proven he can do that, and his budding chemistry with Sean Franklin will be worth watching.
In central defense, Laurent Ciman - provided he’s not rested due to playing on the other side of the continent in Thursday’s all-star game - will in all likelihood be partnered by Victor Cabrera. With Wandrille Lefevre, Montreal’s only other natural center back, out with a groin strain, the option of resting Ciman likely would see Camara shift inside and Toia step in again at right back. However, it seems more likely than not that the Belgium national team defender will marshal the Impact’s back four.
Cabrera, for his part, tends to cover a lot of ground for a center back, which has been a double-edged sword for the 23 year old Argentine. He can also be out-muscled by larger players, though that’s not to say he can’t rise up to win headers. Maybe the bigger concern for United will be limiting Ciman’s distribution, which any other defender in MLS would be envious of. Ciman has the vision and skill to break multiple lines with a single pass, and containing him to unambitious passes will help simplify things for the Black-and-Red defensively.
Further forward, Montreal neatly divides their defensive midfield’s tasks into "ball-winner" and "deep-lying playmaker." They’ve recently traded away Eric Alexander and reacquired Hernan Bernardello, who is potentially elite in that latter role. However, since the move only recently happened, the Argentine might not play this week. Instead, I expect Impact legend Patrice Bernier to get the call. United needs to be in his face, as Bernier is the Impact’s preferred midfield passing hub. There’s also a chance that the younger Kyle Bekker gets the call due to the heat; if Bekker plays, look for him to move up higher than the graphic indicates, while his central midfield partner will have to do more destructive work in a deeper position.
Speaking of those destroyers, Marco Donadel subbed into last week’s game after missing the previous six matches with an injury. Donadel makes no friends on the field, as he’s perfectly at home kicking people and taking yellow cards whenever necessary. However, that cutthroat edge is needed on a Montreal team that can otherwise be a little slow to figure out when they’re in real trouble in transition. That said, Calum Mallace is no slouch either, and between Donadel probably not being 90 minutes fit and the muggy conditions, it seems likely that the Scot will start over the Italian.
On the right wing Montreal is going to bring some speed, regardless of whether Dominic Oduro is needed up front or not. Oduro’s starting role might hinge on whether Didier Drogba is given a start after playing the first half of the all-star game. At 38 and having missed much of the spring injured, the Ivorian is a prime candidate to be rested with an eye on the stretch run. However, even if Oduro ends up playing as a striker, Montreal can still opt for rookie winger Michael Salazar, a Belize international who troubled United quite a bit when these teams met in the preseason. Salazar doesn’t have Oduro’s speed, but he’s more solidly built and has a fearlessness about him that can make him difficult to contain.
Ignacio Piatti has largely played on the left wing since Biello took over from Frank Klopas last season, but there has been the occasional shift back to the position he first played when he came to MLS. Last week against the Union, Piatti spent roughly the first half hour centrally before switching with Harry Shipp. While it seems logical to want your best attacking player to have a central role, Biello uses Piatti wide primarily due to his dribbling ability. Simply put, Piatti is a devastating dribbler, the kind of guy who can not just beat a defender but can do so in a manner that leaves said defender shaken for the rest of the game.
If he’s playing on the left flank, United has to make sure Franklin has plenty of support, and they need to make sure Piatti has an extremely limited number of opportunities to face up in space. If that requires tactical fouling - that is, fouling with a plan, rather than the "Oh no, I’m already beaten" reactive fouling we saw DCU try against Sebastian Giovinco last week - then so be it. Piatti is an extraordinary player, and it will take a lot to keep him contained.
Shipp, meanwhile, loves to get between the lines and draw defenders before moving the ball into the space those defenders abandoned. He’s slow, he’s not really very strong, and he can sometimes slow games down too much, but Shipp has a swagger rarely seen in American attacking midfielders. In Montreal, he seems to understand his role: Use that close control and creativity to find Piatti or Drogba.
Going back to the earlier discussion of strikers, Drogba is probably going to play some part in this game. It’s just a matter of how tired he is after the all-star game. If Biello opts to rest him, United needs to get themselves out in front before he enters the game, because he’s been on fire since returning from an early season knee issue. Drogba currently has more combined goals and assists (13) than he does appearances this season (12). United fans might recall the fact that he essentially buried United just 11 minutes into last season’s final meeting, scoring from open play and from a direct kick. He’s as smart as they come on the field, and he’s still about as difficult to deal with physically as any striker in MLS.
If the conditions force Drogba to be held in reserve, Oduro is less of an all-around threat, but he’s still a threat. Oduro has, for years, been either the fastest or one of the fastest players in all of MLS. His sometimes questionable decisions off the ball and some hit-or-miss technical ability make him something of a blunt object rather than a week-in, week-out terror, but with his kind of speed you can still change games just by being on the field. However, Montreal can now call on Italian striker Matteo Mancosu, who was recently signed on loan from Joey Saputo’s other club, Bologna. MLS owner sends useful player from his other club in Italy...sounds nice, doesn’t it? Mancosu scored last week in his second substitute appearance since arriving earlier in July.
Off the bench, Montreal often makes a central midfield sub, so from the five players mentioned before, you can expect one non-starter to sub in. If Bernier gets the start, he will almost certainly be the man who comes off. On top of the attackers already discussed, the Impact can also call on young Argentine Lucas Ontivero in any of the attacking midfield positions. They could also bring in Johan Venegas, a player that has given United plenty of trouble in the past.