Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union vs Montreal Impact

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Montreal Impact
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: 7:30pm EST, Saturday August 31
Referee: Referee: Edvin Jurisevic, Asst 1: Adam Wienckowski, Asst 2: Kevin Klinger, 4th: Sorin Stoica

The Union no longer need the Montreal Impact to roll into town to be reminded what it feels like to give up five goals. But they get the Eastern Conference leaders anyway in a game with enormous implications for the 2013 playoff race.

Montreal made sure New England’s five goal performance did not stand out last week by dropping five of their own on the Houston Dynamo. With Felipe pushed up in support of Marco Di Vaio, the Impact were less dominant than they were precise and efficient. An even first thirty minutes gave way to a route when Di Vaio and Felipe scored two minutes apart off a pair of assists from former Union winger Justin Mapp. The Dynamo continued to compete but failed to threaten as Montreal demonstrated why building around a strong midfield is the best way to hold a lead in MLS.

Keep it tight

Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello pair the movement and tackling of typical MLS defensive midfielders with a speed of play that exploits the athleticism of their less disciplined opponents. Once Montreal forces a team to chase and expand their defensive shape, the match is all but over. For evidence beyond that on display last week against Houston, just look back to May 25th when the Impact matched the Union’s desire to get forward and eventually took control of the match despite giving up three goals at home.

Teams that have succeeded in frustrating the Impact have maintained a high level of discipline for ninety minutes. Discipline, in this case, means a very compact defensive shape from front to back, also known as shortening the field. Marco Di Vaio may be a lethal finisher, but his days of sprinting past defenders are long over. He gets free, instead, by running the offsides line with an Inzaghi-esque zeal. To release their striker, the Impact need to create space on the ball for Felipe and Bernier so they have time to pick out the right pass.

If Star Wars taught us one thing, the best way to compress space is to trap people (and Wookies) in a gigantic trash compactor. The second best way to take away space is to keep your lines close together. This means no chasing the ball as it moves across the back line (Danny…) and no dropping off to anticipate a through ball (entire defense against New England…)

No playmaker, no problem?

Reading that last paragraph, you are probably thinking the Union are not exactly built to succeed against a team like Montreal. There is a level of chaos built into Philadelphia’s defense that manifests as relentlessness when successful and Brownian motion when less so. In recent weeks, John Hackworth’s desire to create more structure in the middle has been clear, with Keon Daniel playing as a conservative distributor next to Brian Carroll. Gaining more stability in the middle has left the team lacking in quality offensive outlets. Danny Cruz’s one-dimensional game offers an inconsistent way out up the wing, while Sebastien Le Toux has turned himself into an influential wide player with his improved crossing.

The most common exit from midfield, however, has been a checking striker. While many MLS playmakers — including, recently, Justin Mapp — take to the wide areas to find space, the Union have abandoned the playmaker role. This leads the opposition to cease defending the space in front of the midfield and allows a striker to check deep to become an ad hoc creator. Both Conor Casey and Jack McInerney can take up that recessed role, and in essence this gives Philadelphia the ability to, if not prevent domination of the midfield area by Montreal, at least contain it by keeping two holding midfielders in place.

It can work… but will it?

With the two teams’ strategies laid out, the pressing question is how the Union will generate offense. The tried and true strategy of using set pieces, including long throws, to creative havoc in the box will continue to be effective. Sebastien Le Toux could be on his game and provide an outlet and threat on the wing, assuming Jack McInerney returns to the lineup. But relying on these options is less than ideal against top tier sides. And the Union’s inability to come up with alternatives has been a major reason that the offense has been McInerney or bust for half a season and Casey or bust for the rest. Only when the opposition is down a man do the Union assume anything approaching control over a match, and even then they do not appear to have an on-the-ground approach they prefer given time and space.

At this point in the campaign, taking a cross-to-big-boss (that’s Conor) approach is perfectly acceptable. We are past the point where anyone believes this is the year John Hackworth asks his team to play possession soccer. The Union have found a way to get by and they’ve done it consistently and with aplomb. The biggest problem with a quick hit offense is that you end up defending a lot. When the Union have won or held on for tough ties, Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke have been strong; when the gates collapse, it’s often because the two big boys in back run out of ways to stymie continual attacks.

Coping without the AmoBeast

Without Okugo, the Union will turn to Sheanon Williams in the center. Williams is certainly capable of keeping up with a trickster like Di Vaio, and the major issue with moving him inside is that it means introducing Ray Gaddis or Michael Lahoud on the right. No matter how much skill or intelligence a player has, tossing them into the fire to play a strong offside line against Marco Di Vaio is a big, big ask. With Fabinho on the left and either a recovering Gaddis or an out-of-place Lahoud on the right, the Union will have to play a deep line or risk being victimized by Montreal’s striker for the second time this year.

Williams will have to be careful about his defending. Like Danny Cruz, he’s one yellow card away from an automatic one-game suspension.

Prediction: Union 2-2 Montreal

What, I can’t be positive once in a while? Jack McInerney needs a goal and he will finally get one. Ironically, this goal will come after McInerney earns a penalty that Le Toux finishes. On the other end, Felipe will continue to terrorize the Union back line and create enough opportunities to pull the Impact even.



  1. Think anyone would notice if we tricked Cruz and Mapp into trading jerseys for the rest of the year?

  2. I cant wait to lose to a team that has a REAL pair of Dmids. Not just some old, over the hill “captain” who was a one trick pony BEFORE all his skills degraded.

  3. Montreal are beatable in the fact that I thought their Defense kinda sucked when we last played them. Their best defense was holding ans maintaining possession. So if the Union can possess the ball we can beat their defense.

    Are we going to do that… I have my doubts.

  4. What is the Brownian reference?

    • Brownian motion or pedesis (from Greek: πήδησις Pɛɖeːsɪs “leaping”) is the presumably random moving of particles suspended in a fluid (a liquid or a gas) resulting from their bombardment by the fast-moving atoms or molecules in the gas or liquid. The term “Brownian motion” can also refer to the mathematical model used to describe such random movements, which is often called a particle theory.

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