D.C. United’s game against the Montreal Impact will feel pretty familiar for the Black-and-Red. Montreal is still playing a 433, they’re still focused on defend-and-counter soccer, and they’re still heavily reliant on Ignacio Piatti and a former Serie A midfielder when it comes to creating and finishing chances. That’s not great news: since the infamous “one shot, one kill” 1-0 win at Stade Saputo in 2015, United has gone on a miserable 0W-2D-4L run against Montreal, scoring just 4 goals and having a promising late-season run derailed when Montreal came to RFK Stadium to win a playoff game.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, though. Remi Garde, who formerly coached Olympique Lyon and Aston Villa, was supposed to diversify their simplistic approach as well as move them from the East’s middle class and into the upper crust. Instead, it wasn’t until June that Montreal started to take on any of his concepts, and by then Garde had given up on a wide range of formations (including 352, 361, and a 541 with Piatti as a false 9) and tactical approaches.
Instead, it’s been a return to more or less the same gameplan former boss Mauro Biello used, and the results have improved dramatically. Montreal had 10 losses before June 1st, which is incredible, but they’ve gone 6W-1D-3L since then. Granted, four of those games were against the likes of Colorado, San Jose, and an at-their-worst Orlando (the Impact faced the Lions back-to-back during that spell, those lucky jerks).
They do have some decent results sprinkled in, like a 2-0 win over Sporting KC and a 2-2 draw in Portland, but essentially Montreal has done what we’ve been saying United is guilty of: by and large they get the job done against bad teams, but if you can clear a certain bar in terms of quality against them, you’ll probably win.
Evan Bush remains the starter, which is a bit odd given his track record. Bush is fast off his line and has good reflexes, but he’s never done well coming off his line for crosses, and he has a tendency to not take ideal angles to the ball. United will not mind at all if they can get a soft goal or two for the second straight game.
Right back has been an issue for Montreal all year. Michael Petrasso was brought in during the offseason and talked up as the likely starter, but has started only once in their last eleven games. MLS veteran Chris Duvall had pushed him aside, but now the former Red Bull is injured, as is Kyle Fisher. Recently, Garde has turned to Jukka Raitala, who came to MLS in 2017 as a career left back, but since joining the Impact this winter has played plenty of center back before this recent move to the right.
If Montreal wants to be more positive, they could go back to the attack-minded Petrasso, but in all likelihood it’ll be Raitala. That means Dan Lovitz will probably get another start at left back, which reminds me quite a bit of United’s current fullback situation. Lovitz will get forward more than Raitala, but that’s not to say he’s a particularly attacking fullback. Don’t be surprised if United makes a big emphasis out of attacking down the wing today.
Center backs Rod Fanni and Rudy Camacho are both acquisitions from French clubs, which makes sense given Garde’s background. Fanni, 36, was derided as a panic buy at first, but once he got up to speed, the Impact have improved at the back. Despite his age, he’s still got wheels, and he’s got over 300 Ligue 1 games under his belt (albeit many of them at right back). Camacho’s career has been in Ligue 2 up until now, and while he hasn’t exactly been outright bad, it is a bit curious why Victor Cabrera has basically fallen off the face of the earth.
Samuel Piette was a late-season addition last year, and the Canada national team regular has quietly done a decent job for Montreal anchoring their midfield. Piette is quick and tenacious, and plays the position by stepping in hard rather than holding off and waiting to make interceptions. That might play into United’s hands, as their current attack has a lot of moving parts; players that love to chase are the kinds of players who end up behind the play against D.C. this season.
Ahead of him, rookie Ken Krolicki has been a surprise. Talked up as a reasonable mid-to-late first round pick, the expectation for the Michigan St. product were roughly to make a roster and contribute occasionally. Instead, Krolicki has quietly taken a starting role in Montreal by embracing a complimentary role. He doesn’t wow you with any one skillset, but Krolicki works extremely hard, minimizes mistakes, and knows how to play simply, and the Impact have been worse whenever he’s not on the field. He also adds an abrasive edge to a team that is otherwise a bit soft these days.
Saphir Taïder is the star of this midfield though, and like so many previous big Montreal acquisitions, he’s on loan from owner Joey Saputo’s other club, Bologna. Taïder has 5 goals from central midfield, and his late runs into the area are a problem United is going to have to account for throughout this game. While the Algeria international is not quite playing at the level Blerim Dzemaili (the previous Bologna loanee in this role for the Impact) was, he’s still been pretty good. He’s not really a conventional playmaker, and instead will look for combinations that open up space for him to get into the box.
Right winger Alejandro Silva is the one new player in this group that doesn’t feel like a traditional Impact signing. The 28-year-old Uruguayan has played in multiple South American leagues before Montreal splashed some TAM to sign him from Lanús in Argentina. Silva is an upgrade over Dominic Oduro (who has played just 32 minutes this season) and is a more complete player than Ballou Tabla, the Impact homegrown attacker who left in the offseason for a contract with Barcelona’s B team. Silva brings speed and directness to the Impact frontline, but given that this is Piatti’s team, Silva’s job is to stay wide and open space for the rest of the attack.
Matteo Mancosu is starting to show his age at 33, and has just 2 goals and 1 assist to show for 15 appearances (11 starts) this season. Garde tried to find a way to succeed without a traditional center forward in the early going, but when that didn’t pan out, Mancosu returned. Montreal thought they had found his replacement in Jimmy Briand, only for that deal to fall through in preposterous fashion. Nonetheless, Mancosu has troubled United every time he’s faced them, and he’s still very clever off the ball.
That brings us to Piatti, who despite being 33 like Mancosu shows no real signs of decline. His goalscoring pace is a bit behind last year’s 17 in 2,368 minutes (he has 11, but at his 2017 rate would be on 13), but he’s made up for it with 9 assists, already his single-season best in MLS. That’s a combined 20 goals and assists in 21 appearances. Piatti is a nightmare to play against, because he can beat you in just about every way: off the dribble, with his passing, with his crossing, by being smart off the ball, and he’s even decent in the air.
United won’t be able to contain him if he gets much of the ball, so that has to be the plan: cut the field in half with good defensive play in central midfield, funnel all play out of the back towards Raitala, and force Montreal to play down their workmanlike right side. The more this game is played down Montreal’s left, the less likely United is to get a result.
Off the bench, Garde doesn’t seem to rate Anthony Jackson-Hamel, but the young forward is still likely to get some minutes due to Mancosu’s age. Petrasso has also been a frequent late-game addition lately, either to boost their attack by coming in at right back, or solidify their defensive efforts by playing further up the flank.
Homegrown signing Mathieu Choiniere has also started to get more minutes of late in central midfield, but the real ace up Garde’s sleeve is Jeisson Vargas. The Chilean was signed with the intention of being Montreal’s new #10, but Garde’s move towards a more conservative approach has left the 20 year old on the bench. Still, Vargas can play on either wing or in the middle, and if United is in the lead past the 65th minute, you can count on him getting in for someone like Krolicki or Silva.