Match previews

Preview: Union vs Montreal Impact

Photo: Michael Long

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Montreal Impact
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: 4 pm pm, Saturday, March 29
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Referee: Edvin Jurissevic; Linesmen: Frank Anderson, Mark Cahen; Fourth official: Daniel Fitzgerald

After coming up short in Columbus, the Union welcome another winless Eastern Conference foe to PPL Park this weekend. But make no mistake: Montreal is much closer to putting it together than the Revolution were two weeks ago.

Oh, and this Marco Di Vaio character will be available Saturday. So that might help.

Let’s start by looking at a chart that gives good insight into the issues both Montreal and Philly had last week. Expected goals is a statistic that separates the field into sections, then takes the all shots in MLS from each section and calculates the chance they resulted in a goal. The first column, shot1, encompasses, approximately, the six yard box. Shots from that area have the highest probability of going in. As you can see, the Union and Impact had two shots apiece inside that first section, and on average, would score two goals per ninety minutes given the shots they took. Their opponents both took shots from less ideal locations and, on average, would score about one goal per ninety minutes shooting the way they did. So when PSP says you can take some positives from the Columbus match, the numbers back us up.

But still: The Union lost. The Impact lost. And 90 minutes remains a small sample size. That’s soccer.

Trouble up top?

As a result, both Philly and Montreal come into this weekend feeling (rightly or wrongly) like their offenses are misfiring. The Impact will likely insert Di Vaio into the first eleven and expect the aging genius to spark the team to life. The Union have their own aging goalscorer, but Conor Casey will remain a bit player until fully healed. In fact, while Casey seemed like a good option against Columbus, Antoine Hoppenot has a history of tormenting Montreal’s elderly center backs and will probably be a better choice off the bench in the late stages of Saturday’s match.

The biggest question for the Union is not about the strikers. After picking up a goal and an assist in his last two appearances (and sweeping the last two PSP Player of the Week awards), Leo Fernandes is a man on form. It made little sense to start him on the road against a good Crew squad, but now the Union are playing at home against a mercurial Montreal team that is likely to keep a double-pivot in midfield. It is not “if” Fernandes should start, but where he should play.

Finding a spot for Fernandes
The Union could replicate their shape vs New England with Leo Fernandes in front of Edu and Nogueira

The Union could replicate their shape vs New England with Leo Fernandes in front of Edu and Nogueira

The most straightforward switch would be to insert Fernandes behind McInerney and haul off Brian Carroll. This would give the Union a more attacking tilt, with Fernandes occupying Montreal’s deeper lying duo of Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier. It would also mean that, much like he did against New England, Maurice Edu would be in a holding role and restrained from joining the attack.

While there is a strong case to be made for leaving Brian Carroll out of the eleven for home games, it seems like an incredibly risky move against Montreal. The Impact are relying on Felipe Martins and Marco Di Vaio for offense. If Brian Carroll does nothing else, he breaks the direct link between striker and attacking midfield very consistently.

Second, the Union will most likely roll out Aaron Wheeler in the back once again. Only this time he will be playing against one of the three most intelligent runners in MLS. It seems a very poor plan to leave space in the middle when Marco Di Vaio is lurking and Aaron Wheeler is defending.

And third, there is simply a better option.

Go narrow

Against Columbus, Cristian Maidana was not good. And Sebastien Le Toux was… just all over the place. Given that the Union’s most consistent creator, Vincent Nogueira, has a penchant for drifting wide to get involved, one of the wingers can make room for Leo Fernandes against Montreal.

The Union could go unbalanced with Fernandes inside leaving space on the right

The Union could go unbalanced with Fernandes inside leaving space on the right

This does not mean Fernandes is a winger. It means the Union will be unbalanced, but in a way that fits their personnel and Montreal’s approach.

Let’s say the Union drop Le Toux and put Fernandes in the hole. Offensively, Fernandes plays essentially the same role he played against New England. Defensively, how do the Union cover the open flank? Answer: It will be a team effort. But the important thing is that Montreal would prefer to counterattack up their right through Justin Mapp and rookie Eric Miller. Collen Warner and Jeb Brovsky on the left are a much less reliable source of offense, and Felipe Martins prefer to drift left because Warner comes inside and Brovsky is more Jordan Harvey than Danny Alves.

If Montreal does come down the left, Ray Gaddis must delay the attack while Mo Edu, Fernandes, and Nogueira work together to close space. This is a complex defensive system, but it fits both the Union’s best eleven and Montreal’s system. Despite losing, the Impact midfield is likely to remain the same since they dominated the ball and grew into the match against Seattle.

The question remains: Who gets dropped? Le Toux or Maidana? Though he was poor against Columbus, I would leave Maidana on. But I think it’s a close call.

Shutting down the right
Mapp vs SEA

Mapp vs SEA

Much like Columbus, Montreal’s right side is much stronger offensively than its left side (Yes, left midfielder Bernardo Anor scored both Crew goals, but neither one involved him actually playing left midfield at the time).

Justin Mapp remains an active presence playing the outlet role for the Impact. The new wrinkle on the Montreal right is the rookie right back Eric Miller. Against Seattle, he was as involved as any MLS fullback will ever be. He completed 54 passes and of his only two incomplete passes that were not crossing attempts, one was a goalline cutback and the other a long attempted through ball. Whoa.

Miller vs SEA

Miller vs SEA

Mapp and Miller hooked up a lot. Mapp hit his fullback 17 times and Miller returned the favor with 13 passes. And though they put in some early crosses that caused trouble, neither player was able to make anything happen from deep in the corner. Essentially, these two were isolated by Felipe Martins’ poor showing and Patrice Bernier’s cautious play in a holding role.

So Fabinho will have his hands full. And if Maidana/Le Toux track runners with the same malaise that characterized their play in Columbus, the Union can expect to see a lot of Eric Miller in the final third.

Team pressure

One major reason to sit Le Toux against Montreal is that the Impact midfield is fully capable of controlling the ball on the road. This means the Union has to have good defensive shape and know where they want to push play with pressure. Chasing all over the pitch will open up lanes and encourage Patrice Bernier forward. Montreal’s captain can be a force when confident, but this season he has been timid about joining attacks.

If the Union are chasing, Bernier is fully capable of taking the empty space and pushing into the final third. This is not something Philly wants to encourage.

Prediction: Union 2-0 Impact

If Philly continues to create chances, they are going to start going in. With Fernandes on form and McInerney playing against a subpar back four, the home side will have plenty of opportunities to go ahead.

The two issues that should worry John Hackworth most are: 1) How will his team defend set pieces? And 2) Will Di Vaio be able to isolate on Wheeler?

With good tactics and a return to form by Cristian Maidana, this is a very winnable match for the Union.

Injury notes
  • Hackworth said Austin Berry and Sheanon Williams are both training but will take the slow train to Recoveryville.
  • Conor Casey could have gone 15-20 minutes last week and will start finding minutes over the next few games if the appropriate situation presents itself.


  1. Does Edu’s call-up to the national team affect any of his playing time?

  2. Looks like it will be a rainy day and I’m sure the field will be soft and messy. Whom does that benefit?

  3. Hack loves his supersubs and
    I suspect Leo will be taking Hoppenots 65-70 minute
    sub slot. with
    Casey on the bench that should make Cruz the odd man out.

  4. “a double-pivot in midfield”
    Help a relative beginner out. What’s that mean?

  5. @John – Yeah, Scott is dead on here. The “double-pivot” term developed as a way to talk about playing with two defensive middies without saying outright, “two central midfielders who can’t do much offensively aside from move play side to side like center backs.” It has sort of evolved into a way to designate that a triangle central midfield has two deeper players and one attacking midfielder.

  6. This is a solid analysis, Adam, except that I strongly disagree about your assessment of Le Toux’ defense last week. In fact, I noticed that he got back on D a tremendous amount. He did have that serious defensive lapse on the corner kick, granted. But that’s an entirely separate problem from getting back on D during the run of play, which he generally does extremely well, in fact.

    I am not certain that I am ready to have Fernandes start quite yet, but if indeed you’re going to substitute Fernandes for one of the wingers, I would sit Maidana, not only for the reason I mentioned above, but also because Fernandes and Le Toux seem to have developed some substantial chemistry so far, having combined on 2 of the Union’s 3 goals scored this season.

    • Defense isn’t about getting back, but getting back into shape. If you are trailing the play, or moving out of the shape, you can hurt your own team even if you are running hard- the mode of Le Toux.

    • Southside Johnny says:

      He was “getting back” from being out of position mostly.

    • Last two games LeToux has a goal and an assist (same as Fernandes). So not sure why Fernandes is considered “in form” and LeToux bench fodder?

      • Frankly? Because there are people who knock Le Toux for what he’s not. He could save a baby from a burning building on his way to the game and there are people who would complain that he also didn’t put out the fire.

      • Hey! No, I understand what he’s done for this team, but I’m not a fan. But I’d bench Maidana if I was coach. He had a poor game against New England and a terror against Columbus. – and as was said in a podcast, when someone hits a rich vein of form, not playing someone doesn’t mean you are punishing them.

      • In my haste, I wasn’t entirely clear. So I apologize. I wasn’t particularly saying anybody here at the moment would trash Le Toux for not putting out the fire; just that those people exist.
        I think it’s completely fair to point out that he screwed the pooch on the corner kick, for example. In a man-marking scheme, that was clearly Le Toux’s mark, and he lost him by taking his eyes off him.
        But as I said, there are some people who want him to be something he’s not, and will take any chance to criticize him.

  7. kingkowboys says:

    I agree with this analysis; however, I think we are going to see the same starting 11 from Columbus and Leo will be a 60-70min sub. I believe this will be for 2 reasons. One, Hack won’t want to take out BC because of DiVaio and his CAM link, as stated BC is the best option for disrupting the link. Two, if Mo plays Wednesday he probably won’t play next saturday and Leo will take his starting spot making Nog the box to box guy.

  8. I’d prefer Fernandes as a sub rather than a starter. He brings an undeniable spark this season. Very curious to see how Wheeler handles the old Italian, though. I don’t think it’ll be pretty…especially in the forecasted weather.

    • I know how I like to handle my old Italian (Dry Cured Capacola, Sharp Provolone & Prosciutto): oil, lettuce, tomato and no onions

      • Crack some pepper on that and we’re good to go. Man, I’m hungry now.

      • And it better be *real* sharp provolone, not the crap some delis claim is sharp provolone.
        And along with Ben’s pepper, I’ll take oregano, too, please. Put it on the roll with the oil, not on top.

      • can’t agree here, i think wheeler should put onions on marco di vaio

      • I’m making some porchetta Di testa this week if anyone wants some

  9. Adam – just curious on the logic about Hoppenot. I agree that he definitely “has a history of tormenting” Montreal, but how often has he actually contributed to goals compared to Casey.
    It’s not so much a knock on Hoppenot, but Casey is one of the few (if only) Union players who consistently shows quality decisions in the final third or is able to create opportunities out of nothing. If he’s healthy, I think the slower Impact back line is just the matchup he needs to find some extra time and space.

    • @Spugger: Awesome question.

      If we look at 2013, Casey and Hoppenot are almost creepily equal in their contributions.

      Casey: 2201mins; Hoppenot: 732mins

      Goals: Casey: 1goal/220minsplayed; Hoppenot: 1goal/244minsplayed

      Assists: Casey: 1/440mins; Hoppenot: 1/366mins

      Key passes: Casey: 1/59.5mins; Hoppenot: 1/66.5mins

      Shots on goal: Casey: 1/84.65mins; Hoppenot: 1/91.5mins

  10. Kind of getting sick and tired of defending that Carroll should still start and that he can hold the last line of defending in the midfield. He really hasn’t been that successful in that regard. I think Edu could easily fill that roll and would flourish considering Edu would be very comfortable in that position and therefore allowing Fernadez to play that attacking roll.

    • Yes but hackworth promised edu he wouldn’t be the holding midfielder but a box to box guy. Since he’s technically on loan, they’re gonna make him happy.

      • The Black Hand says:

        No reason why Edu could not play DM and still get forward on attack. Think Xabi Alonzo, Sergio Busquets, Andrea Pirlo (My vote for worlds best), etc…

      • There is a reason. And it’s right there in your answer. Those guys all play on teams that flat out dominate the ball and either have the best central midfield pairing in the world in front of them (Busquets) or the best wingers int he world in front of them (Alonso). That tends to keep the other team from throwing too many guys forward in attack. Also, Pirlo plays deep, but he’s not a DM. 34 tackles in 22 games? No way. Check out Pogba/Vidal defensive stats. Pirlo is just chilling waiting for the next pass. He can do that because, like you said, he’s the best in the world. No one’s gonna tell him different.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Agreed, about all players mentioned. Pirlo’s strength is his sublime passing, but it’s his positioning and the way he plays his angles (closes lanes) that makes him SO great to watch. No need to tackle, when the ball never gets there.

        My point was; we have a pretty talented club. Skilled midfield and capable back four (when Berry is back, although Wheeler has performed admirably). Our club has the ability to tip possession numbers, well, in our favor. We don’t need to have Brian Carroll as our fifth defender. Edu is capable of covering the DM, yet experienced enough to find a way to get a sniff of the attack. Carroll is redundant reinforcement that I don’t think we need anymore. Situationally, maybe, but no longer a concrete starter. Edu has hardly been free to head up the pitch, when paired with Carroll. Give him the DM and he will still be able to get up in it, when needed. If Edu is not satisfied with that type of role (massively important to the club) then let Turkey have him.

    • Yup. Edu is an international level player more than capable of containing anything the MLS has to offer. When he and Carroll are on the field together I see ghosts of Keon Daniel. Side to side. Side to side- then as a result, #5 and #10 get fewer and fewer touches. I recognize he wants to play more offensively, which he would if he was taking 5 of every 7 passess Carroll tends to have. Redundant is a good word. In the MLS, if you have a quality back 4 there is zero reason to need 2 DMs in my opinion.

  11. My big question for the game tomorrow will be how the back four handle DiVaio with respect to the trap. He’s a guy that is offsides roughly 73 times a game, but will kill you on the two where he gets it right. I’d rather us body him up instead of trying to trap him personally. We’ll see…

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