D.C. United is facing a very different opponent from this weekend, as the Montreal Impact are a consistently counter-attacking team. After struggling to know where LAFC’s high press was going to come from and paying the price, that might sound like welcome news. However, with Wayne Rooney out, picking the lock to the Montreal bunker might prove to be a difficult task. On the other hand, maybe it’s the right moment to be playing IMFC, who will be without Ignacio Piatti (knee) and Maxi Urruti (suspension).
Let’s get into who Remi Garde is likely to send out tonight:
Goalkeeper: Evan Bush
Bush has been Montreal’s starter for about 5.5 seasons now, and while he’s never quite tried to throw the job away, it’s a bit mystifying as to why multiple Impact coaches have stuck with him. It’s not that Bush makes a ton of mistakes, or has poor positioning, or any glaring flaw. Rather, it’s that he’s just a fairly limited goalkeeper who, at 33, has surely peaked by now.
Right back: Bacary Sagna, or possibly a youngster?
Sagna, the Arsenal and Manchester City veteran, has been a pretty solid addition for Montreal. However, at 36 and coming off of a full 90 on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, he feels like a likely choice for rotation if Garde wants to make any moves. Zachary Brault-Guillard, a 20-year-old Haitian-Canadian on loan with the Impact from Olympique Lyonnais, appears to be the most likely option. Brault-Guillard has just 5 minutes of MLS play under his belt, but the reality is that Sagna is 36 and Garde might not have much of an option but to give him a shot. Clement Bayiha, a more attacking option that played as a winger against United in the preseason, could also fill in.
Center back: Zakaria Diallo
Diallo wasn’t available in the 7-1 loss Montreal suffered against Sporting KC, and while he wasn’t solely the difference between a respectable result and getting destroyed, his absence was clear. Despite a rather humdrum resume in France’s Ligue 2, Diallo’s ability to read the game and organize the group around him is key for the Impact.
Center back: Jukka Raitala or Victor Cabrera
In that aforementioned 7-1 defeat, Cabrera and French veteran Rudy Camacho started, and they looked hapless throughout. Garde had a reaction, going with versatile Finnish defender Raitala as Diallo’s partner on the road against NYCFC over the weekend. The pairing looked solid, thanks in part to Raitala (at 5’11”) not being tested by the Pigeons in the air.
Raitala brings some passing ability out of the role that Cabrera won’t, but the need to rotate might force Garde’s hand, as we’ll get to...
Left back: Dan Lovitz or Jukka Raitala
...right now. Lovitz has quietly worked himself up into being one of the best left backs in MLS, but he might be dealing with heavy legs on the short turnaround. Raitala came to MLS as a left back, and if Garde needs to make a move to protect Lovitz for the long haul, he could opt for Cabrera at center back and Raitala on the left.
This would be a positive development for United, as the step down from Lovitz to Raitala at this position is fairly substantial.
Right-center midfield: Micheal Azira or Shamit Shome
Azira didn’t get any attention when he ended up in Montreal in a mid-season trade last year, but the energetic Ugandan midfielder was exactly what the Impact needed. Azira is basically the Impact’s lesser version of Russell Canouse. Azira always keeps his game simple, which allows freedom for Saphir Taïder to join their attack without leaving the midfield exposed.
If Azira is needed in a deeper role (or even at right back?), Shome is realistically the only option. Azira’s deputy is Ken Krolicki, but the Michigan State product is out injured. Shome is more of a box-to-box midfielder than a roving ball-winner like Azira, so that change would cost the Impact some midfield toughness.
Defensive midfield: Samuel Piette or Micheal Azira
Piette has been Montreal’s anchor man for a while, and while he’s not quite elite in MLS, he’s been pretty solid for a while. Like Azira, Piette’s job is simple: occupy the space between the midfield and the center backs, commit fouls if you have to, keep the ball moving quickly, don’t try anything too audacious. However, United has had success in the past forcing him into turnovers, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them focus on him while pressing.
If Piette gets a rest, Azira will take over here, but that’s not likely to happen.
Left-center midfield: Saphir Taïder or Shamit Shome
Taïder doesn’t get enough attention, and has 9 goals and 8 assists in his last 24 appearances, which is a Best 11 figure. The Algerian doesn’t really lack for anything, as he’s got high soccer IQ, speed, vision, and technical ability. He can score from long range, but also gets into the box on a regular basis.
With Piatti out, United will have more freedom to focus their efforts on containing Taïder. If they succeed, this is probably going to be a good night for the Black-and-Red. If he needs a game off, Shome is the probable replacement, and look for the Impact to be even more conservative than usual until they can bring Taïder in off the bench.
Right wing: Orji Okwonkwo, or several others?
Okwonkwo continues a proud tradition of Montreal getting a player on loan from Bologna, Joey Saputo’s other team. He’s a highly touted attacker, but the returns have been unremarkable for the 21 year old, with just 1 goal and 0 assists in 5 starts. He caused huge problems against Orlando, scoring that lonely goal while firing 7 shots, but in his other 4 games he has just 5 total shot attempts.
If Okwonkwo is needed in the middle, Bayiha appears to be the most reasonable option, though Choinière could theoretically play there as well. Most likely, Garde watched Chris McCann in transition against LAFC and wants to get some more direct speed running at him, which gives Bayiha the edge.
Center forward: Anthony Jackson-Hamel or Orji Okwonwko
In 2017, Jackson-Hamel looked poised to become a prominent goalscorer in MLS, scoring 9 goals in 1,137 minutes. However, under Garde, his opportunities have dried up, and he played just 580 minutes last season. It’s the same this year, with just 3 appearances totaling 18 minutes. However, with Maxi Urruti suspended, it’s possible that the Impact academy product gets a chance to prove himself.
Garde’s doubts about Jackson-Hamel might mean Okwonkwo playing through the middle, which will give them speed in that spot either way.
Left wing: Harry Novillo or Mathieu Choinière
Novillo is another newcomer, but as of yet he hasn’t been a difference-maker. There’s a bit of hesitance to his game thus far, leading him to settle for crosses rather than getting on the run and making defenders play on the turn. Choinière could get the nod instead to freshen the team up, and the last time United saw him, this happened:
Frankly, I’m hoping Novillo gets the start.
Impact (ha) substitutes:
It really depends on how much rotation is in place. In lieu of rehashing the whole piece, I’ll just hark back to that note about Taïder as a possible game-changer off the bench. If Montreal is willing to roll the dice on holding the score at 0-0 for an hour, they could turn to Taïder and go for the win.
Another possibility: if they’re up or holding onto a draw late, you can pretty much count on a move into a 541, with a center back replacing pretty much anyone from the attack.
None, really. Garde tried a lot of looks for the first months of 2018, but nothing worked. Defense-first soccer built around speedy counters out of a 433 is the one thing that they’ve gotten points with, and it seems highly unlikely that they’re going to adopt LAFC’s more adventurous tactics.
As with LAFC, this is an experimental format for these pieces. I got some positive feedback, but I’m going to give it a couple more rounds of asking for comments (pro or con) before making a full-time switch. Please let me know in the comments if you like this format over the longer version from the past.