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Preview and tactics: Union at Impact

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What: Union at Montreal Impact

Where: Stade Saputo, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Up There Somewhere

When: 7:30pm EST

Watch: TCN, Direct Kick, MLS Live

Referee: Ismail Elfath; SAR (bench): Anthony Vasoli; JAR (opposite): Peter Manikowski; 4th: Fotis Bazakos

MLS Gameday (PDF)

“It was disappointing and frustrating,” said Impact midfielder Justin Mapp. “To give up two late goals like that, that they didn’t really earn, is very frustrating. We had a chance to get points on the road and we let that slip away. It’s unacceptable.”

Yes, only two weeks ago a disorganized Montreal defense handed three points and a playoff lifeline to Philadelphia Union. And while Mapp conveniently forgets that his own team hardly earned their own tally, the fact that the Union didn’t do more against a back line made up of little more than poutine, round bacon and Shavar Thomas remains troubling.

Italian savior

The Impact defense that man-handled New York last weekend bore little similarity to the one that desperately poked at the Union in July. With Nelson Rivas and Alessandro Nesta in the middle, Montreal boasts an intelligent — if almost absurdly slow — back line that can snuff out attacks with positioning rather than with typical MLS brawn. Even as a young player, Nesta made his name as a cerebral defender rather than a purely physical presence. He can have the same effect on the Impact that Faryd Mondragon had on the Union in 2011, giving the back five a trusted axis around which to move and build.

Additionally, Nesta and Rivas allow Hassoun Camara to push wide, where he is an ideal complement to Davy Arnaud. Where Arnaud prefers to stay high, Camara fills space and plays simple, pushing the entire Montreal offense further up field as they start their attacks.

United Union backs

In Montreal’s ideal scenario, they will end up with exactly what the Union have: A consistent back line that can move the ball with ease and join attacks when necessary. That said, Philadelphia has finally reached a decision point with their defensive unit. Bakary Soumare is listed as probable for Saturday’s match, a move that, hypothetically, puts Amobi Okugo’s starting spot under pressure.

Hypothetically because, as anyone with eyes knows, Okugo has been spectacular since slotting in for the departed Danny Califf.

The major argument for including Soumare in the lineup boils down to one word: Height. And despite the fact that Kenny Cooper is the only player to take advantage of the Union’s somewhat undersized back line, this argument will persist. It is, of course, advantageous to have a big fella lurking in your defense, but is it worth messing with chemistry? Is it worth dropping Okugo, who is coming off an absolutely ridiculous match against New England (68/71 passes completed? 5 interceptions? 5 clearances? Lost the ball a total of five times!?)?

No, the dangers outweigh the benefits.

Unless Okugo could fit into the midfield, where Brian Carroll is firmly entrenched, and Gabriel Gomez is battling Michael Lahoud for playing time. A good logjam to have, but a logjam nonetheless.

Striking questions

To celebrate his first MLS goal, Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio is taking a vacation to Italy, where he may receive up to a six-month suspension for failing to disclose information about the most recent Italian match-fixing scandal. In his place, the Impact could turn to rookie Andrew Wenger.

Even playing at home, it’s unlikely the Impact will turn to a 4-4-2 in Di Vaio’s absence. The three-headed midfield of Warner, Bernier and Felipe have, simply put, been too good to sacrifice.

For Philadelphia, Antoine Hoppenot is unlikely to retain his spot in the starting eleven. John Hackworth said as much this week: “A guy like Antoine did really well in his first start, but now we’re going away and playing in a very tough environment against a team that has been very good at home.”

Bernier vs NY

The demotion will be a tactical one, so Hoppenot can expect his usual late appearance on Saturday.

Monsters in the midfield

Even before Thierry Henry made it official, everybody knew Patrice Bernier was the motor in Montreal.

Against the Red Bulls, Bernier completed 56 of 67 passes, but that does little justice to the manner in which he controlled the midfield. The above chart shows a brilliant positional match that perfectly complements the preferred role of attacking midfielder Felipe. If a New York midfielder was wandering around the middle third, wondering whose house he was in … it was Bernier’s house. All of it.

Push it real good

Luckily, there is a simple solution to the strong Montreal middle: Push it wide. Philly has to force the Impact to use their wide midfielders early in attacks. Both Justin Mapp and Davy Arnaud are wide players in name only. They want to cut inside, be in the box, and be shooters instead of crossers.

Combined, the two wide players had three of Montreal’s seven shots against New York, and no successful crosses between them.

If the Union can make Montreal’s midfield play to the wings early, the home team’s offense will sputter and struggle.

But there’s more

Slowing down the Impact is one thing, developing a cogent offense quite another. Last weekend, the Union went over the top early and often. In the second half, Jack McInerney started dropping into spaces and creating the links that allowed Philly to progress up the pitch and sustain an attack. Little wonder that the team’s winner came from working the ball across the pitch, with the entire midfield (including Brian Carroll) pressed high enough to maintain possession in the final third.

To create this kind of offense throughout the match, Philly needs to close gaps between the midfield and defense and then get either McInerney or a winger to drop into the space between the Montreal back line and midfield. Keeping McInerney high will ensure that Nesta and Rivas can’t close space, so it should be Freddy Adu who fills in the gap and provides an outlet when the team is working out of the back.

This will all be harder to achieve if Michael Farfan is out of the mix. Listed as questionable on Tuesday’s injury report (the latest injury report is due Friday evening), his absence would likely force Freddy Adu into the midfield role he so poorly filled against the Impact in July.

One final hump

Valdes against Montreal. McInerney against New England. Huge, last minute goals.

Goals the Union cannot continue to rely on. It’s time to turn the corner and put games away before times get desperate. At this point, the lineup is set, the style of play is settled, and the team has the confidence to take out the clubs around them in the standings.

Yet, instead of imposing themselves on games like they did against Kansas City, the Union continue to play it safe and leave things in the balance until the final moments.

Though his load is already heavy, the onus falls upon Jack McInerney to push the team into high gear on Saturday. Playing against perhaps the best center back he will ever face, McInerney has a speed advantage. But can he match wits with Alessandro Nesta?

If he rises to the challenge, the team will follow him. It’s an individual battle that will resonate throughout the match.

McInerney surely knows this is true. His winner on Sunday, and the leap that followed, were great moments.

Now it’s time for a great game.



  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Okugo, Valdes, Garfan
  • MID: Carroll, Lahoud, Adu
  • FWD: Pajoy, McInerney, Hoffman
  • GK: Donovan “Wickets” Ricketts
  • DEF: Hassoun “Chevy” Camara, Alessandro “Better than the” Nesta, Nelson “Nelson” Rivas, Jebrovsky
  • MID: Collen “Yakko” Warner, Patrice “FrenchPatrick” Bernier, Felipe “Flip” Martins, Justin “Peg Leg” Mapp, Davy “The D Is Silent” Arnaud
  • FWD: Andrew “Wingman” Wenger

Injuries (As of July 31)


  • OUT: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms);
  • DOUBTFUL: MF Michael Farfan (L foot contusion);
  • QUESTIONABLE: DF Chris Albright (R groin strain);
  • PROBABLE: DF Bakary Soumare (R knee menisectomy recovery)


  • OUT: DF Zarek Valentin (L ankle sprain); FW Bernardo Corradi (L knee ACL tear)


  1. Mmmmm….poutine.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Actually, there is one additional argument in favor of playing Soumare. Valdez may need to miss one or both of the next two games with national team duty. It might make sense to start Amobi in the midfield and after 60 minutes bridge on Lahoud or Gomez and push Amobi back. That was Soumare gets to play 60 before we he has to play 90.

  3. So Justin, I guess Montreal “earned” that gaffe of a goal given up by MacMath? *Cues worlds smallest violin*

  4. With Marfan out, I’d like to see Martinez get another start up top with Pajoy & Mac. I know he hasn’t done much so far, but he’s only had a handful of starts. He’s shifty and has some speed to run at that backline. I like Hop as the speed option off the bench. I don’t think thrusting Hoffman into the starting XI would be a good idea, though some substitute minutes wouldn’t be a bad idea.

    If the staff things Soumare is ready to start, they should insert him into the starting XI. That being said, Okugo should immediately slot into the Gomez/Lahoud roll where his distribution will be a huge boost to the usual safe passes we see from Carroll and Lahoud.

  5. Why not use this game to start Sumare , it’s the perfect opportunity with Marfan hurt, okugo can slip into his spot.

    Also, is there any chance they’d slide okugo out and have garfan take his brothers place?

    • I wouldn’t protest too much if Soumare started and Okugo pushed up, but when you’re playing on the road against a likely 4-5-1, where the 1 is not a large striker and the wingers are not great crossers… is that really the time to play with the back line and introduce a big guy?

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