It is, quite frankly, enormously difficult to predict what sort of lineup both D.C. United and the Montreal Impact will trot out tonight. Thanks to some frankly nonsensical scheduling - twelve of the thirteen MLS teams with a game tonight also have games on Saturday, which is one less recovery day between games than is considered reasonable - these two Eastern Conference teams have to play an important game with either second-choice players or with tired starters who would be at a higher risk for injury.
I’d love to go on about how DC’s problem in that regard is particularly acute (in that group of twelve, DC played Sunday while everyone else had a game Saturday), but we don’t have time for that. Montreal will leave us enough to puzzle over, believe me. The Impact have been in poor form lately, conceding three goals in two straight games (losing both, including a 3-0 home debacle to MLS’s worst team). It’s enough that MLSsoccer.com put together an "Is it time to panic in Montreal?" video.
Complicating things further, coach Mauro Biello has been tinkering with his formation quite a bit. He’s mostly stuck with a 433 since replacing Frank Klopas, though there was a stretch at the start of the season where 4231 was preferred. Lately, though, Montreal has given variations on a 442 - both a flat-ish version familiar to United fans and a diamond - a try in an effort to pair Didier Drogba and Matteo Mancosu. Neither has really panned out, but then the Impact lost 3-0 to the Fire playing their familiar 433. Sometimes the formation isn’t really the problem.
Still, it seems likely - not certain, but likely - that the 433 is what United will see tonight. Here’s how it would look:
Evan Bush is probably the safest prediction here. In Montreal, he’s the clear #1, though I suppose any goalkeeper who gives up six goals in two games won’t be entirely certain of starting the next game. Bush hasn’t really been the problem in Montreal, but he’s also not exactly bailing them out of their mistakes.
The confusion as far as player rotation starts at right back. Hassoun Camara, after riding the bench for a big chunk of the season, has been the starter for a couple of months now. However, the Frenchman’s age (32) makes him a candidate for rotation. Montreal acquired Amadou Dia about five weeks ago from Kansas City, but has yet to give him a minute of playing time. This would appear to be the time to do so, though Donny Toia could also slot in on the right.
The center backs have been a problem of late, with Laurent Ciman perhaps showing some mental fatigue after playing for Belgium at Euro 2016 and his partner Victor Cabrera’s desire to hunt the ball becoming more of a liability than a blessing in recent weeks. Wandrille Lefevre was chosen ahead of Cabrera for their last game, but that’s the 3-0 loss to Chicago that keeps coming up. The Impact aren’t really deep here, though, so resting Ciman is probably not on the table. If Biello decides to go all in on a "send a message" lineup, we could see rookie Kyle Fisher, but he has largely been playing for FC Montreal in the USL.
On the left, Ambroise Oyongo seems like a solid bet to start. He was suspended against the Fire, so he’ll have fresh legs as well as being unattached to the worst result for Montreal since 2014. Montreal will look to involve him in their attack, which has been dangerous (Oyongo has 5 assists in 18 appearances). United seemed to bottle him up at RFK, but doing so on the road will be tougher. On the plus side, Oyongo can be exposed in transition, which is something that can be said of Montreal as a whole.
In central midfield, Biello is probably going to have to start one of Marco Donadel or Hernan Bernardello in back-to-back games. Donadel is Montreal’s best ball-winner and one of MLS’s more clever proponents of the tactical foul. However, he is slow, and the fact that he chooses to foul so often usually means a yellow card.
At 33, he seems like a player Biello might want to rest, but then that means building around a strategy of using possession to manage the game. Bernardello can sit deep and be a playmaker, but he doesn’t pick up recoveries and tackles at a rate comparable to Donadel. Plus, if you move Bernardello back and sit Donadel, you more or less have to start Kyle Bekker, a player often accused of being a passenger defensively. Starting Bekker for Donadel also means asking Calum Mallace, a midfield workhorse, to put in another demanding shift as the third man in this trio. Whether it’s to out-run a tired group or to out-hustle a less exuberant group of central midfielders, United should be looking to win in central midfield via work rate, physicality, and energy.
On the right, rookie Michael Salazar - who hit United for two goals late in the preseason, and then barely played until summer hit - appears to have displaced Dominic Oduro as Biello’s preferred speed option. He’s not as fast as Oduro, but he’s more physically robust and puts in more on the defensive side of the ball. I don’t think Biello sees him as first choice - against Chicago, Mancosu was asked to play wide right despite looking uncomfortable, while Salazar is more of a natural in the role - but barring a completely hardheaded approach to player rotation, this is a place Biello can inject some life into his team’s attack.
Of course, Lucas Ontivero is also a candidate for more time. The young Argentine could show up on either flank, though I suspect we’ll see Ignacio Piatti getting a start on the left. Piatti is an MVP candidate and, for my money, the single most entertaining player to watch in MLS. Defending him is a nightmare. He has the dribbling ability to put the best defenders in the league on the ground, the vision and passing ability to rival any playmaker in the league, and he’s also a hard worker who doesn’t struggle when games get physical. If United can cut him out of the game, things will be much easier. If Piatti is heavily involved, the Black-and-Red are going to be under real pressure to put goals (plural) on the board to get any kind of result.
Of course, Ontivero - who has a tendency to prefer dribbling over passing or crossing - is not the only option to come in on the wings. Johan Venegas has, for reasons unknown, been forgotten by Biello. United fans know the Costa Rican well from his time with Alajuelense, and if he gets into this game he’ll have a point to prove. Meanwhile, Harry Shipp has been moved from "Out" to...well, whatever having no designation next to your name means on the MLS injury report.
Shipp’s status is unclear, but in this formation he could pop up on either wing. He’ll look to dip inside and combine rather than stay wide, where his lack of speed can be an issue. If he’s healthy enough to start, he also gives Biello the option of moving back to a 4231 (where he’d most likely play in the middle, though he and Piatti regularly swap roles in that alignment).
Up front, Drogba is a major threat...if he plays. United’s last visit to Quebec was basically shut down within 11 minutes by the Chelsea legend, but the 38 year old went the full 90 on Saturday and has struggled with injury problems throughout his time in MLS. It may well be that Montreal prefers not to risk him for more than 20 minutes in this game, which would mean a start for Mancosu instead. The Italian has a long career of goalscoring in Serie B, and has looked like he can carry that over to MLS. He’s not Drogba, but he’s still dangerous. If Biello wants to rest both of his over-30 strikers, he could recall Oduro, who is fit but has been frozen out lately.
As far as subs go, we’ve already touched on nearly every Impact player. Ontivero seems like the best bet to sub in, and if he’s not a starter, Drogba will probably enter the game no matter what happens. Homegrown forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel was thrown into this weekend’s game when Montreal went to a 343 late, and could enter if Montreal is desperately trying to find a goal in the final ten minutes.