In 2016, the Montreal Impact were never that good or that bad. They flirted with different formations during the year, but never really found something that worked better than a 433 built around the counter. Fortunately for them, that worked like a charm in the playoffs, where they found themselves in extra time in the Eastern Conference finals only to lose to their hated rivals from Toronto.
The question for the Impact in 2017 centers on the encore. How does a team full of players on the wrong side of 30, with only one effective tactical identity, take the next step?
Regular season: 45 points (11W-12D-11L, -4GD) | 5th in East
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Season form: WWLLWWLDDDDLWDDWDDLWDWLLDWLDLLWWDL
Montreal never really caught fire during the regular season, but also never really fell off the pace of their peers. Here, for example, is their record when the season is broken into thirds:
First 11 games: 4W-4D-3L
Second 12 games: 4W-5D-3L
Third 11 games: 3W-3D-5L
Never that good, never that bad, all year long. Aside from four consecutive draws towards the end of spring, the Impact never got on a run of more than two wins or more than two losses. Their longest unbeaten run (six games) saw them pick up four ties, which is the exact same set-up as their longest winless run.
Unfortunately for D.C. United, Montreal figured things out right at the end of the year and embraced the fact that their roster is principally built to be a classic counter-attacking team. The Impact caught United on their worst night in months in the knockout round, then expertly dealt with the Red Bulls to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Both legs against TFC were classics, with the insane second leg joining the 2004 Eastern Conference final in the pantheon of all-time great MLS games. Montreal ended up coming up short, though, and an aging roster saw their window to pick up some silverware get more narrow as a result.
Projected starting lineup
If this looks familiar, it’s because it’s the exact lineup they used in the playoffs last year. Montreal was very quiet this offseason, with only the very recent loan acquisition of defensive midfielder Adrian Arregui possibly shifting their starting lineup at all. Didier Drogba is gone, but there’s precious little new blood. Draft picks Nick DePuy and Shamit Shome appear likely to spend more time on loan with the Ottawa Fury than with the Impact, a situation that appears likely for Homegrown midfielder Louis Beland-Goyette and winger Ballou Tabla (though the latter just may be pushing his way into more regular gameday roster appearances). Montreal grabbed Chris Duvall from the Red Bulls (via Minnesota, who took him in the expansion draft), but he appears set to start the season behind Hassoun Camara at right back.
Montreal does have Andres Romero back from a long injury stint due to a torn ACL, and they’re talking about playing him as an attacking midfielder rather than the wide role he used to have. Youngsters like Michael Salazar and Anthony Jackson-Hamel will play a bigger role this year, but otherwise the 2017 Impact seem poised to be just like the 2016 Impact (at least until Blerim Dzemaili, currently playing with Joey Saputo’s other club Bologna, arrives).
Key signing: Adrian Arregui
Arregui pretty much gets this section to himself by default. “Argentine top-flight defensive midfielder,” as a profile, seems more interesting than “back-up right back” (that’s Duvall) or “draft picks buried on the depth chart” (DePuy and Shome). I’m not going to pretend to know much at all about Arregui, so let’s instead discuss the realities of the Impact midfield.
Patrice Bernier opted to return for another year, which given the Impact captain’s age (he’ll turn 38 in September) was a real question. Marco Donadel turns 34 in April, and Hernan Bernardello turns 31 in August. It’s the older pair that are potential issues for head coach Mauro Biello. Bernier has a knack for being at his very best as autumn comes around, but he hasn’t played over 1900 minutes in a season since 2013. In fact, he doesn’t have 1900 regular season minutes if you combine 2015 and 2016. Some of that was down to Frank Klopas and Biello both selecting other players, but another factor is that he simply can’t be a week-in, week-out starter at this age.
Donadel’s track record isn’t much better. The Italian veteran has 46 appearances over the past two seasons (42 starts), which means he missed about a third of the available games. There’s also a downward trend, as he only managed 18 starts in 2016. Factor in a penchant for yellow cards - Donadel has 18 yellow cards in 3,515 career MLS minutes, which works out to just under one booking for every two games played - and it’s clear that Montreal needed a solution here.
Arregui should be expected to push his way into the regular rotation at worst, and that group will also include Calum Mallace, Romero (if Montreal wants to take risks), and possibly Beland-Goyette. Dzemaili will be a Designated Player on arrival, but asking a 30 year old to go from a full season in Serie A straight into the MLS grind is asking for an injury of some sort. Montreal will most likely need to give the Swiss national teamer some time to rest.
Key player: Ignacio Piatti
Piatti is the best non-Giovinco player in MLS, and Montreal’s counterattacking style suits his dribbling ability and vision in the final third perfectly. Piatti’s qualities on the break are frankly what allow them to risk fewer numbers going forward; as a scheme-breaker who thinks two or three steps ahead of opposing defenders, there are times where it’s almost like Montreal has an extra man in the attack. He will probably lead the Impact in goals and assists, which says it all.
Teams can set themselves up to reduce Piatti’s impact, but ultimately Montreal has the vision in central midfield (and, crucially, through Laurent Ciman at center back) to get the ball onto the left side often enough that Piatti is virtually never kept quiet. Having Dominic Oduro’s raw speed out on the right keeps teams honest, and Matteo Mancosu’s intelligent movement - which, crucially, involves a willingness to make himself the decoy some of the time - is an ideal recipe for Piatti to be at his best.
Montreal has a proven method for success. Their front three is a problem for any MLS defense, and the soccer IQ in their midfield is right there with any other trio in the league. The issue for the Impact is the grind of a whole season. Being a purely counterattacking team makes it hard to win games at home, for example, because MLS teams tend to make clear steps towards defensive solidity on the road. And what about that aging midfield? If Arregui doesn’t match the starting group in quality, Biello will have to rotate in an inferior option on a regular basis.
It goes further than just tactics and old legs, though. Montreal is simply not a deep team anywhere. No team could replace Piatti, of course, but can the Impact win games if Mancosu is injured for a month (or if they can’t resolve the looming fact that his loan ends in July)? An injury to Ciman would be a flat-out disaster, and they’re also going to struggle to truly create through the middle.
At or near their best, I have no doubt that Montreal is a playoff-caliber team. Last fall’s run was not an accident. However, in a conference where more teams appear to have improved than not, the aging Impact’s decision to largely stand pat appears to be a mistake. If Biello can’t figure out a plan B for home games, or if they suffer an injury to a key player, a spot in the playoffs might be too much to ask.