Photo: Michael Long
Who: Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: Stade Saputo, Montreal, Canada
When: Saturday, October 19 at 2pm EST
Watch: CSN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: Silviu Petrescu; Linesmen: Daniel Belleau, Peter Manikowski; Fourth Official: Geoff Gamble
Oh, it has been a rough road for the Montreal Impact.
It says a lot about the slog of a full MLS season that the only two teams to earn four wins in the first five weeks of the year might both miss the playoffs. Dallas is already out, and Montreal needs to keep accumulating points if they want to maintain the upper hand over Philadelphia and Chicago.
Let’s review the Impact’s last six matches: Three goals total, only one of which came in the team’s five losses. Did I mention the five losses? (Ed pointed it out in Thursday’s round-up.) The last three losses have been Unionesque 1-0 scorelines, with what was once the most vaunted offense in the Eastern Conference looking like a shell of its former self. Even if Montreal had scored with every shot on goal over their last two matches, they would not have scored as many goals as they did against the Union back in May. It’s bad.
Head coach Marco Schallibaum has not been shy about shaking things up as he seeks to inject some life into his team. Felipe Martins’ rhythm and confidence eloped together, leaving the industriousness of Patrice Bernier and the direct attack of Justin Mapp, Sanna Nyassi, and Marco Di Vaio without a talented link. While Andres Romero and Hernan Bernardello have put in strong shifts, they leave plenty to be desired in the final third.
In the past three matches, of which Felipe started only one (and was subbed off after 65 minutes), the Impact have completed over 60 percent of their passes in the final third only once. One also happens to be the number of times Montreal has attempted more than 90 passes in the final third over those same three games.
Even in their September matchup with the Union, the Impact retained their ability to control the ball, but they had completely forgotten what they were supposed to do with it. With 530 passes, Montreal managed a single shot on target and zero chances created.
So what do we do with this?
The Union can expect to find a desperate team in Montreal, but desperation doesn’t always make things better. Philly should treat the Impact like what they are right now: A team that won’t shoot themselves in the foot but certainly won’t hit the target either. You can wait out a team like that, but how do you beat them?
Two words: Smart pressure. The Impact won’t just give the ball away, so Philly will have to go get it.
Montreal has taken the rather curious step of using Davy Arnaud in the back recently. Even if Arnaud doesn’t remain in the back on Saturday, the fact that he is in contention for a spot tells you how bad the outside backs have been. See a weak spot? Apply pressure.
But can the Union do it? With Kleberson in and Michael Farfan and Le Toux out, the ability to press the backs is somewhat diminished.
Even if Jack McInerney hadn’t reintroduced himself last week, John Hackworth would have had little choice but to bring him back into the first eleven on Saturday. McInerney’s energy will be sorely needed, as will his defensive responsibility. One quality that has not diminished as the goals have dried up is the young striker’s work rate. Whenever Danny Cruz finds himself caught up the pitch, he can count on McInerney for cover.
So it’s unclear whether the Union will be able to put pressure on Montreal deep. This will likely lead to a first half that resembles the September matchup between these teams more than the May shootout.
The Canadians need all three
At some point, Schallibaum is going to have to push his team out of its comfort zone. A home win gives the Impact a chance to clinch a playoff spot tomorrow. Leaving any points on the table means Montreal would have to travel to Toronto needing a win. If there was a situation that is guaranteed to get a rise out of the listless TFC, that would be it.
The Union will get their chances, but they aren’t likely to come until Montreal’s anxiety pushes them to take chances. To make this scenario happen, the Philly defense has to pocket Marco Di Vaio for the first 60 minutes of the match. Di Vaio sliced through the Union back line like Sepp Blatter through a book on ethics in May. Though Di Vaio has looked a step slow in the latter half of the season, he will take even his half-chances at home.
Is this situation… perfect?
The Union almost seem built for this game. Their defense is stout, they don’t mind not having the ball, and they have two very opportunistic strikers. Furthermore, the Union have scored 18 goals on the road this year. In the Eastern Conference, only Columbus (21 of 40) has scored a higher percentage of their goals away from home. It will only take one chance for Casey or Jack in the Box, version 2.0 to put the Union ahead.
There’s more? Indeed, there is.
The last two goals Montreal has given up have been to central defenders. Their set piece marking has been haphazard once they lose the flow of the game (i.e., when Alessandro Nesta can’t quarterback the defense). Though the Union will be without two of their best set piece takers in Marfan and Le Toux, there is still some magic in Kleberson’s storied legs. The Brazilian needs to be on top of his game delivery-wise for the Union to take advantage of any set piece opportunities. Montreal knows they’ve been struggling to handle dead ball situations and will be anxious early in the game.
Prediction: Montreal 1-0 Union
Believe me, I hope the scoreline is different. The Union are 4-3-3 coming off a draw this season, which is about as unhelpful a number, prediction-wise, that you will ever see. I simply think Montreal gets one early as the Union are settling in and then sits on the ball the rest of the match. I can only see the Union winning this one if they play perfect defense through the first hour and force the Impact to take some chances.