Last week, D.C. United picked the right week to face Atlanta United. With star striker Josef Martinez injured and precious little depth available in any attacking position, the expansion club saw some chances go unconverted, fell behind, and then didn’t have any real reply off the bench.
This week against the Montreal Impact, things may be similar for the Black-and-Red. Matteo Mancosu’s injury in the opening moments of last week’s 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps will rule him out until sometime in mid-to-late June, and United will get to face a team lacking their deadliest finisher for the second straight week. At the other end of the field, starting center back Victor Cabrera is out with an ankle sprain, while Hassoun Camara - who could either be the starting right back or Cabrera’s replacement in the middle - is questionable at best after suffering a concussion a little while ago.
In other words, United’s timing is pretty good. Mancosu’s movement is the ideal compliment to Ignacio Piatti’s ability to draw so much attention, and the Impact don’t have an ideal replacement. In the back, while they can fill right back with a solid MLS option, center back is a big problem.
The situation could have been even better if referee Drew Fischer had remembered to go back and give Marco Donadel a second yellow for a foul he committed to break up a Vancouver attack. Fischer correctly gave the Whitecaps the advantage, but the play simply went on too long, and Donadel worked some kind of “these are not the robots you’re looking for” trick to stay on the field. C’est la vie.
In any case, Mauro Biello’s side will probably come out in the 4231 they’ve used in recent weeks:
They could also drop into a 433 without changing anything, with the idea being to drop Donadel deeper, pull Bernier back, and be an even more compact, defense-first team. However, since the Impact have been trying to diversify their approach - defend-and-counter is not likely to pile up results over the course of a full season, after all - the 4231 remains the most likely choice.
In goal, Evan Bush has been solid enough after needing most of 2016 to really get going. As always, his main issue is coming out to claim crosses, which is a weakness compounded by Montreal’s overall inability to defend in the air. Set pieces need to be a theme for United, and they need to find a way to get Taylor Kemp some opportunities to whip some crosses in from open play.
Chris Duvall has gotten most of the starts at right back, but that wasn’t the plan coming into the year. Cabrera found himself in a battle with Camara for the starting center back gig, and then got hurt. Camara did the same thing soon thereafter, and suddenly the Impact’s choice to pick up a proven commodity at a position they seemed solid at is turning out to be wise. That said, Duvall is far from unbeatable, and United will probably be able to generate offense down the left (be it from Lamar Neagle, or possibly Sebastien Le Toux if Patrick Mullins is restored to a starting role).
Laurent Ciman will surely start as the left-center back. While he hasn’t been in the Defender of the Year form that he’s had in the past, he’s still a valuable outlet in possession who has the skill and vision to break United’s lines with a through ball. That’s a big threat against a team who will be looking for quick breakouts, so defending from the front and defensive shape immediately after turnovers remains vital.
United will want to attack Ciman’s partner whoever it ends up being. Kyle Fisher got just his third start in two years last week, and unless Camara is cleared, he’ll probably get the nod again. Wandrille Lefevre - who was notably suspended by the Impact for an Instagram post, only for them to reverse course following an MLS Players Union grievance - would normally be considered ahead of Fisher, but from afar it looks like Lefevre is still in the doghouse.
On the left, Ambroise Oyongo remains one of the most dangerous attacking fullbacks in MLS. While his production is down (last year he picked up roughly one assist per five games played, while in 2017 he’s got one assist in 7 appearances), he’s still a major threat on the overlap. Like last week, United would do well to funnel Montreal’s possession towards the right half of the defense rather than let the left half get most of the touches.
Donadel will be the Impact’s most conservative midfielder, and United needs to shut down his ability to switch the point of attack or go over the top. They’re also going to need to remain calm in the face of his attempts to provoke fouls and cards, while also exploiting the fact that Donadel is one of the most likely red card recipients in MLS. If they get under his skin before he gets under theirs, he loses a lot of what he does well defensively.
Partnering him is Hernan Bernardello, who has been lacking in form this season. He hasn’t been outright bad, but he’s making the kind of money where he needs to be a significant difference-maker. He’s certainly capable of being a very good midfield metronome, and he’s smarter than Donadel when it come to using fouls to break up play without getting in trouble. United should also remember that he, like Donadel, is a major threat from long range.
Functioning as the playmaker for Montreal, Patrice Bernier is having a great year in what will be his final pro season. His four assists on the year mean he’s tied for third league-wide, and he’s produced them in under 600 minutes of play. Interestingly, he’s played the full 90 four times this year; in 2016, he only did so three times in a full season.
Bernier is not very mobile, but his soccer brain lets him pick the right place to be, and he’s very good about being economical about getting something out of every sprint. If he steps up high to apply pressure, he’s likely spotted a mistake from United; if he’s making a run off the ball, there’s likely a major opening. Jared Jeffrey needs to make sure Bernier never gets room to breathe in this one.
On the right wing, Biello raised some eyebrows by leaving Dominic Oduro on the bench against the Whitecaps in favor of Ballou Tabla. Tabla, an 18 year old Ivorian-born Canada under-20 national team player, has earned his minutes by showing some real trickery to go with his obvious speed. Combine that with Oduro’s pretty anonymous form so far in 2017, and Biello’s choice is actually pretty reasonable.
Still, Oduro could factor into this one. Managers often rotate young attackers in and out of the team, so Tabla’s spot as a starter is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. Oduro could also start up top, where Mancosu leaves a big void. Anthony Jackson-Hamel - who has three goals in the past three games despite not starting in any of them - is in great form, but he also started badly cramping up after just 68 minutes on the field last week (he had replaced Mancosu after the Italian got hurt). If Biello is unsure whether Jackson-Hamel can actually be relied upon to play a starter’s minutes, Oduro will get the nod instead.
That leaves us with Ignacio Piatti, Montreal’s best player and among the best attackers in MLS. Here’s the good news: Piatti is not in the sort of form that makes him a human cheat code. You don’t need to break into a cold sweat every single time he gets the ball at the moment. Plus, with Mancosu missing, dealing with him becomes a bit simpler. Jackson-Hamel is faster and stronger than Mancosu, but he’s also far more predictable in his off-the-ball movement, which in turn leaves Piatti with fewer options.
However, Piatti is still a scheme-breaker who can conjure a goal out of nowhere, and he can do it with minimal assistance from his teammates. If United can make sure the game is played more in the middle or on their left side, they can reduce Piatti’s influence without having to constantly stop him directly. If the Impact make this game one where he’s constantly involved, though, it’s going to be a tough night at the office.
Off the bench, Oduro will certainly make an appearance if he isn’t starting. He could play up front or on the right, and if he goes to the right there are some variables. He could directly replace Tabla, or he could come in for Bernier (with Tabla going to the left and Piatti into the middle). If Biello is really going for it, though, he’ll pull one of his defensive midfielders, push Bernier deeper, and then move Piatti into the central role.
Calum Mallace and Adrian Arregui are options in central midfield, which might be important given that all three starters are on the old side (they’re collectively 101 years old!). Mallace will add size, physicality, and some mobility, but neither player appears to be a game-changer who is pushing the established starters.
Last week, Biello was forced to use fullback Dan Lovitz as a winger in the late going due to lack of other options. Andres Romero is injured, and Michael Salazar is away on loan with the Ottawa Fury, so once you get past Oduro there isn’t much in the way of attacking depth. We might see first round pick Nick DePuy on the bench for this one, which would give Biello a traditional target man as an option, but realistically it might be tough for the Impact to change this game with their third sub.