Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Montreal Impact

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Montreal Impact
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 7 pm, Saturday, Aug. 9
Watch: CSN, MLS LIve, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Fotis Bazakos; Linesmen: Joe Fletcher, Felisha Mariscal; Fourth Official: Robert Sibiga

Somehow, the Columbus Crew are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia Union, with a better roster, an equally experienced coach, and an actual MLS striker, should be in that spot. And by the end of Saturday, they could be.

The Crew face Toronto and New England is taking a well-earned break from underperforming this weekend, meaning a win over lowly Montreal could find Philadelphia completing an unlikely leap into the playoff picture following Jim Curtin’s elevation to interim manager.

But a win is far from a given: Philly has handed over four of Montreal’s fourteen points this season, and the Union have yet to show they can play on the front foot under Curtin.

A muddle in Montreal

Union fans can sympathize with Impact supporters. Over their past five matches — all losses — Montreal has twice scored first and come away empty-handed and twice come back to tie the match only to fall behind once more. And if you go back six matches, you get the back-breaking Erick Torres winner in the 94th minute. Ouch.

Montreal’s most notable quality may be their ability to play into their opponents’ hands with striking regularity. Against Toronto, they gave up the early goal TFC needed to be able to sit back and play their Bradley-centered counter game. Against Portland, the Impact left an attack-minded midfield on the field late into the second half, allowing the Timbers to the space they desperately needed to find a winner. Go back further to find a team that could not stay compact against a second half RSL onslaught (even before a red card effectively ended the match) and the absurd decision to stick with two strikers against a five-man Columbus midfield after going up late in the first half.

In short, manager Frank Klopas, having received the support of his owner, has turned 2014 into an extremely extended preseason.

The midfield mess

Previewing a team in such exquisite flux is no easy task. The Impact have one consistent midfield starter in Patrice Bernier, but everything else is constantly up in the air.

How up in the air? Montreal started rookie Eric Miller next to Bernier against Toronto while the No. 5 overall pick was still listed as unavailable with a hamstring injury.

While the makeup of the midfield is difficult to predict, Klopas has Issey Nakajima-Farran returning from a red card suspension and Marco Di Vaio coming off 90 minutes in the CONCACAF Champions League, so the Union should be able to count on a 4-5-1 formation from the Canadian side.

Nakajima-Farran has been a solid contributor since coming over from Toronto in a midseason trade. He has mostly been an option off the bench, but his freshness coming off suspension, combined with his ability to play on either side of the formation means he will be in contention for a starting role this weekend.

Along with the Canadian international, Dilly Duka, Maxim Tissot, and Gorka Larrea will vie for a spot in the first eleven. Duka and Larrea put in very strong performances against FAS midweek, and at least one is likely to play against the Union. Larrea is a 30-year old Spaniard still finding his legs in MLS. He may give Montreal the second pivot in the midfield next to the do-everything Bernier that they desperately need. Hernan Bernardello and Bernier occasionally dictated play despite the mess around them, and the Impact need Larrea to fill the void left by Bernardello’s move to Mexico.

Regardless of who fills in the midfield gaps, Montreal will only score if they can create space for Justin Mapp and Felipe. Offensively, the Impact are a one-trick pony and that trick is Felipe and Mapp combining to draw in defenders then picking out either Marco Di Vaio or Jack McInerney.

So the question is: How to close down the creators without leaving a striker in space?

Marking Mac

The striker in question is very likely going to be former Union front man Jack McInerney. While sitting on only six goals this season, McInerney is actually scoring at just around his career rate. In 2012 he scored in 42 percent of his starts, in 2013 he scored in 44 percent of starts, and this year he has scored in 43 percent of his starts for Montreal.

The Union, of course, know McInerney well. He makes good early runs to open space for Mapp and Felipe and he arrives late in the box with uncanny timing. In his stronger performances, McInerney has added a linking element to his game, often holding the ball up or leading Mapp into space with a throughball. The Edu-White backline has done a good job of tracking runners when the fullbacks get caught high, and whatever the pairing is against Montreal will have to continue that trend.

Furthermore, Philly simply cannot give up a set piece goal. Montreal has big bodies they can throw forward and McInerney himself is no slouch in the air.

Play your game or take over the game?

The Union have two clear options. First, they could ignore the obvious talent gap and employ the deep-defending/quick-countering game that has served them so well under Jim Curtin. Second, they could attempt to dominate the ball with a stacked midfield.

Carlos Valdes’ return raises obvious lineup questions. Who plays with him (if he plays)? If he takes Mo Edu’s spot on the back line, where does the All-Star go?

A busy week for Edu and Cristian Maidana’s uncertain return from injury add even more questions to the mix.

Here is what we know: If healthy, Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Cristian Maidana will start. And this could mean an uncomfortable conversation for a player who has seen his share of discomfort since joining the Union.

Okugo’s place
One of many possible lineups

One of many possible lineups

Amobi Okugo was drafted as a defensive midfielder. Then the Union brought in Brian Carroll and Okugo had to wait his turn. Then the Union lost Carlos Valdes to World Cup dreams and Okugo had to fill in at center back. Then the highly touted midfield acquired in the offseason failed to work out and Okugo was back in the middle of the park, though in a restrained role next to less offensively gifted partners like Michael Lahoud and Brian Carroll. It has been a strange journey.

Now, if Curtin sticks with the formation that has halted Philly’s slide into irrelevance, Okugo could be the odd man out. Or he could return to the back line.

The other option is to drop Danny Cruz and run a 4-3-3 with Okugo and Edu covering for Nogueira. This would turn Maidana into a winger/second striker and give Sebastien Le Toux more freedom to stay high, something he often does after 55 minutes anyways. While this may not be a viable system against teams that can dominate the ball, it could be an effective tactic against a side like Montreal. Philly’s counterattacking system was less effective against a Chicago side that also felt no need to own possession. The Impact could have a similar strategy, and the Union cannot afford to let another two points slip away against an inferior opponent.

If he is ready to play, Curtin may elect to hold Maidana as a substitute, meaning some of these big questions will be on hold until Tuesday’s Open Cup match against Dallas. But it’s clear that the Union have the players to make a run in the East.

And while Jim Curtin has been masterful in restoring the team to playoff contention, how to use new parts is something his predecessor never figured out. Having good options is a positive, but it can take time to make everything fit.

Time the Union simply don’t have.

7 Comments

  1. Union – 3 Montreal – 1.

  2. is that your preferred or predicted lineup? also i find it odd that you are not including the possibility of an edu valdes centerback pairing

  3. Just. Win. Baby.

  4. I feel like an honest graphic would have Nogueira, Edu and Okugo’s shirts all overlapping one another. Most of the time, they play very slightly different hues of the same position. And another thing: don’t blame Jose Pekerman for Amobi’s misplacement. Okugo was moved to center back, lining up next to Carlos Valdes, because Nowak chased away Danny Califf in 2012 and the team had no better options. As Eli wrote in June 2012, “Amobi Okugo kept his place in the center of the Union defense after strong showings in the Open Cup and the recent friendlies in Reading and Harrisburg.” Carlos did not leave the team until 2013.

  5. kingkowboys says:

    I think that should be the preferred formation. I would like to see that midfield diamond rotated a bit to run a 4-1-4-1 with Okugo as the DMid allowing Edu and Nogs to operate more on the attack. This will also allow a centralized DMid and the other two will cover for Le Toux and Cruz when they are way up the pitch.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Nogueira can’t hold it down as an attacking mid. I don’t know why you would want an even more defensive player in Edu up there with him.
      .
      I cannot understand why they don’t play a natural, 6,8 and 10 when they have guys perfectly suited for those positions, Okugo or Edu, Nogueira, Maidana, respectively.

  6. Mo can’t go 45 + 90 + 90 in a week. A chance to host OC championship will factor into it. Hold CV for more time to train with White or Edu. Brown subbing for Casey early. If Maidana isn’t fit again, his injury is worse than advertised. MacMath not M’Bohli?

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