D.C. United’s recent history against the Montreal Impact has been pretty unpleasant. The Impact ended United’s 2016 - which saw the Black-and-Red charging into the playoffs on a ferocious goalscoring run - with a thud, coming to RFK and walking out 4-2 winners in a game that wasn’t even that close. Since the notorious “one shot one kill” 1-0 win in Montreal, United has gone 0W-2D-3L against IMFC, scoring only four times in the process.
However, this may be a good time to fix that. The Impact will be without their one utterly indispensable player, Ignacio Piatti, who picked up an adductor strain in Tuesday’s Voyageurs Cup final. They’ll also be without captain Patrice Bernier, goalscoring sparkplug Anthony Jackson-Hamel, and back-up goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau due to Canada’s participation in the Gold Cup. Left back Ambroise Oyongo - quietly one of the best fullbacks in MLS - is out for the year with a torn patellar tendon. Utility wide man Dan Lovitz is injured as well.
On top of that, the Impact are not really having a good moment morale-wise. Toronto FC came back from a 2-1 aggregate deficit at halftime to win the Voyageurs Cup on a last-gasp, gut punch Sebastian Giovinco goal. That follows a 4-1 loss at Columbus that involved a horrific second half collapse, and a 3-3 draw in Orlando that saw the Lions steal a point in the 94th minute.
You’re probably noticing a theme. In their last three games, the Impact have conceded six times after halftime, including two result-changing stoppage time goals. These are the kind of outcomes that can completely derail your season, and given that Montreal came into this stretch of games with a 4W-5D-4L overall record, it’s not like they were riding high in the first place.
Head coach Mauro Biello has tried to jar some things loose, moving to a 532 at one point before rolling out a 4231 mid-week in Toronto. However, that was with Piatti and Bernier available to start. Without those two, there’s simply not the sort of creative passer available to branch out and still succeed. As such, look for a return to the low block, counter-attacking 433 that has troubled United so much in recent years:
In goal, Evan Bush has been solid if unremarkable this year. He’s had a couple of howlers, but not so many that you’d start to expect something on a weekly basis. One thing to look out for: Bush struggles a bit at coming through traffic to claim crosses. On set pieces, United needs to resist their troubling tendency to always commit fouls and just be in the way.
At right back, Hassoun Camara had an injury earlier this season that let Chris Duvall take over the gig. However, Camara is fit now, and with Oyongo out for the year, Montreal has no real left back option. As such, Duvall is probably going to be stuck on the other side (though Kyle Fisher, a center back throughout his time as a pro, played there at TFC mid-week), which means Camara should end up starting. He’ll come forward and has done well against United in the past, but is still error-prone in possession and can leave huge gaps behind him following turnovers.
At center back, Victor Cabrera is back from a long injury absence, and in the past he’s been a consistent first choice for Biello. However, Fisher has had some good moments filling in, providing a physicality that the undersized Cabrera can’t match. Either way, Laurent Ciman - who has been solid, if not the Defender of the Year level of the past - will be in charge of organizing the group.
Marco Donadel will function as Montreal’s #6, and while he hasn’t been poor this year, he also hasn’t been quite as effective at protecting the back four as in previous seasons. Donadel has figured out how to play without constantly picking up cards, though, having gone from 13 yellows and 2 reds in his first 25 appearances in MLS down to 7 and 1 in his last 32 appearances. Mobility is an issue for the 34 year old, but he’s also good at getting under the skin of attacking midfielders (something to watch for, given Luciano Acosta’s undeniable temper).
His partner in midfield will be Hernan Bernardello, another player familiar with the dark arts in soccer. Bernardello’s return to the Impact has, frankly, been kind of a bust. It’s not that he’s been bad, but rather that his 2017 play has been bland and unremarkable. He’s disruptive to opposing attacks and helps keep possession ticking over, but he’s not playing at the sort of level one would expect of a former DP who still makes a big chunk of change.
Montreal’s big mid-season addition is Blerim Dzemaili, a Swiss international with extensive experience in Serie A. His soccer IQ and technical ability made him a clear help to Piatti on his arrival, but he might not be exactly what the Impact needed. Dzemaili is more of a #8 that covers a ton of ground and provides late runs into the box than a playmaker or tempo-setter. Without Piatti, though, he’s going to have to step up and be the attacking hub for Montreal.
Piatti’s absence, coupled with Jackson-Hamel’s call-up, has opened up some room in the Impact attack for Dominic Oduro’s return to starting duty. The Ghanaian speedster has only appeared in two of Montreal’s last five games, and has just one goal all season. However, as ever, he’s still as fast as anyone in MLS, and that makes him a threat to turn any aimless ball over the top into a goalscoring opportunity.
Piatti’s actual spot on the left flank will go to Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, the 18 year old homegrown player that scored the Impact’s goal at RFK earlier this year. Tabla’s mix of speed, invention, and dribbling ability make him a problem both out wide or cutting inside to attack. He might not be consistently dangerous over 90 minutes every week, but in any given moment he can break things open on his own.
Finally, Matteo Mancosu is back from the injury that kept him out of United’s prior meeting with Montreal to lead the line. The Italian veteran makes very intelligent runs and has a great knack for losing his marker. He’s not a special athlete by any means, but plays the game with his brain, and he’s also a clinical finisher. As United learned in last year’s playoffs, Mancosu doesn’t need big chances to get himself on the scoresheet.
Off the bench, Montreal doesn’t have too many options left. Winger/forward Michael Salazar was brought back from loan to give them some depth off the bench. Most likely, he’ll either replace Oduro or Mancosu (in the case of the latter scenario, Oduro would move into the middle). Homegrown attacker David Choiniere is another option on either wing, while rookie target man Nick DePuy might be brought in if Montreal opts to throw the kitchen sink at United late.