Match previews

Preview: Union vs Montreal Impact

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Montreal Impact
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, June 27 at 7 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Sorin Stoica; Linesmen: Claudiu Badea, Danny Thornberry; Fourth Official: Robert Sibiga

Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact are tied together by the trade that sent Montreal’s first ever SuperDraft pick to Philly in exchange for double-digit goalscorer Jack McInerney. It is debatable who won that trade. But what is not debatable is that neither team has done much winning in the time since it happened.

That said, the Union are coming off a gigantic win over Seattle on Wednesday. Despite resting major players and missing others through suspension and injury, the Sounders still boasted Marco Pappa, Lamar Neagle, and Gonzalo Pineda. Philly struck through workhorse CJ Sapong and held on through some stout, organized defending. The win — heck, just the calm performance in back — was a welcome relief after last Saturday’s meltdown in Los Angeles.

Montreal is actually looking like a, dare I say it, competent MLS team in 2015. Winners of five of their last eight, they have a points-per-game on par with New England, Orlando City, and New York Red Bulls.

The Impact have won matches when they dictate play and keep the ball far, far from their back line. With eight goals in the first halves of matches and eight in the second, Montreal has spread out their scoring. However, they have allowed ten of eighteen goals against in the final thirty minutes of matches. This lax defending late is both a function of weaknesses in back and the simple fact that the Impact use a lot of old guys in midfield. The central triumvirate that started and looked worn down against Toronto midweek needs to play well because, much like the Union, Montreal has nobody else who can compete at nearly the same level.

Dilly Duka and the shell of Patrice Bernier were the impact subs against Toronto. That about sums it up.

Donadel moves the ball side to side well, but is a defensive liability when he leaves the center of the park.

Donadel moves the ball side to side well, but is a defensive liability when he leaves the center of the park.

Piatti and his merry men

The engine of Montreal’s success has obviously been Ignacio Piatti. Sitting behind the striker, the Argentinian has near-total freedom to roam, get into the box, sit deeper, or stay high. He does all of those things, and he does them well.

As teams have focused more energy on marking Piatti out of the game, Frank Klopas has built more width into the attack and encouraged Marco Donadel to step forward from a deep-lying midfield position. Donadel is hardly the quickest or most cultured player, but he has almost turned those faults into virtues by disappearing from matches just long enough to slip away from a defense and get forward to create.

Against Toronto, Donadel and his midfield partner Nigel Reo-Coker were actually close to their best offensively but revealed their defensive weaknesses. Donadel rarely leaves the center of the pitch. And for good reason: When he strays, he becomes a wild ‘n crazy tackling machine.

Reo-Coker is more apt to chase down the ball, but both players lack the stamina to execute a modern pressing game. Oddly though, Frank Klopas often insists on pushing these veteran players to chase, which leaves enormous gaps in front of defense. Although the Impact shutout Orlando last weekend, they should consider themselves lucky. Orlando’s inexperienced strike force had to regress toward the mean at some point, and Cyle Larin and Pedro Ribeiro both missed numerous opportunities from deep in the center of the box. Giovinco was less forgiving midweek, setting up shop around the top of the box and creating the space that Jozy Altidore would use to slip away from Bakary Soumare and give Toronto the lead.

Maidana vs SEA

Maidana vs SEA

Pfeffer Time?

Even more telling was just how much the Montreal midfield struggled to contain Michael Bradley’s vertical runs. The US midfielder scored in the 27th minute by making a late run into the box that literally zero Impact players noticed. Or they noticed and didn’t care. Or they noticed and cared, but are simply old and tired and were playing on Wednesday. No matter the reasons, it was ugly defense. And there will not be much more rest for Montreal before they face Philadelphia.

The Union, then, need to play with a midfielder who makes good late runs into the box. And there is only one player that fits that description on the squad: Zach Pfeffer.

Pfeffer first half vs SEA.

Pfeffer first half vs SEA.

Pfeffer still looks to be adjusting to the speed of MLS play. And it is hard to blame him considering he has played almost everywhere except his natural attacking midfield position since integrating into the first team. Against Seattle, Pfeffer combined well with Vincent Nogueira but often found himself in the same spaces Chaco Maidana enjoys. This is an issue for Jim Curtin, who cannot play Maidana wide and get any penetration unless Fabinho pushes for overlaps. However, Fabinho has historically been terrible at choosing when to overlap, so tweaking the play of a guy who took so long to figure out defense is a dangerous game.

Yet Curtin does need to figure out how to get Pfeffer and Maidana on the pitch at the same time. Both players link up well with CJ Sapong, who has quietly turned into a monster since returning to the team. When Sebastien Le Toux returns to health, Curtin should have little reason to keep Andrew Wenger — who once again went without a shot or key pass — on the bench in favor of Pfeffer.

The question, then, is how to organize two playmakers who both prefer to start in the center. Returning to Sapong, the striker’s numbers against Seattle are staggering: Three key passes and a goal. Those stats are Conor Casey at his rested best, and Sapong did it largely by competing for every single ball and chasing play so he was nearby when counterattacks began. The simple truth is that Sapong is almost unguardable with the ball at his feet in the box. As he proves his ability to finish with his feet over and over, defenses will play closer to him and he will be able to gain separation when chasing crosses.

Sapong challenged for every aerial ball and provided good service with his feet.

Sapong challenged for every aerial ball and provided good service with his feet.

Mea culpa

I was not certain that trading for Sapong was a good move. It was unclear whether Sapong would pair his athleticism with the desire and workrate required of a striker fronting a team that will often be chasing play rather than dictating it. Since rejoining the Union, Sapong has proven fully capable of stepping in as the lone striker. In the past five matches, Sapong has taken 14 shots and put seven on frame. Four of those have actually gone past the frame and into the net. It is an incredible run. Sapong has scored with his head and with his feet. He has held off defenders and he has blown past them. He has never given up on a play, arriving at the back post for easy finishes that hide the work put in to get to the spot. In over 2300 minutes, Sapong had six goals over the past two seasons off 18 shots on target. This season he has six from ten. Those numbers are likely unsustainable, but it’s clear that Sapong is motivated to a different degree than he was earlier in the season, and his ferocity has carried a team that would have scored only two goals in June so far without him.

Prediction: Union 2-0 Impact

Philly is not two goals better than Montreal. But the Impact are not built for three games in a week. Jack McInerney is on pace to have another 7-8 goal season, and keeping him off the scoreboard is simply a matter of frustrating him with a good defensive line (without top end speed, McInerney has been learning the Di Vaio dark arts of playing the offsides line… semi-successfully).

Possible lineup

Possible lineup

The Union should be able to rotate out Brian Carroll, who put in another solid performance on Wednesday, with Pfeffer dropping deeper. Andrew Wenger actually combined well with Sheanon Williams on the right (though only Williams made an impact in the final third, Wenger being kicked in the head excluded). Leaving Wenger on the right means Fabinho can move forward and Ray Gaddis can return to left back. Maurice Edu has looked more comfortable with Williams on his outside, and Gaddis is a better matchup for Ambroise Oyongo’s overlapping runs.

Philly should have aimed for at least five points this week, and after misplacing that five in the Galaxy goals column, they enter this weekend with the opportunity to nab six against a tired but dangerous Montreal side. The Impact can score quickly and defend deep. The Union will need to control the ball in the final third and be willing to move it side to side with speed rather than dump it into the box for Sapong. With discipline on the offensive and defensive ends, Jim Curtin’s men can once again rebound from a disastrous road game to leap back into the playoff hunt.


  1. I love the suggested lineup. Does Wenger get left in only bc Ayuk is young and McLaughlin is Roger Torres? I would love to see what the 3 MF can do playing off eachother and rotating. Sapong has been a monster and just what we needed.
    That said, I expect a pretty much chalk lineup same as Wednesday, with Gaddis possibly replacing Fabinho

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I agree that Wenger played better on the right side with Williams, a pairing that might warrant further repetition to see if the improvement continues or was a one game aberration.
    I am cautious of moving Fabinho on the “ai’n’t broke, don’t fix” principle, but I do not know the threat posed by the Montreal winger referenced. Fabinho can beat a winger/midfielder one v one in the back third and the middle third. Can he do so versus a defender in the offensive third? My subjective impression is less positive, fewer examples to recall and less an impression of success. But I was not impressed that Pfeffer beats defenders one v one when he’s on the flank either. Maidana has the technical skill, but not the pace, and is quite valuable in the central channel offensively, whence he creates the overloads in the flank channels with Fabinho and Wenger and Williams and Ayuk (Le Toux not so much). Probably the resolution depends on the characteristics of Montreal’s likely right flank defender. The game may be played in the rain, too, so that may influence decisions.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    I just don’t see it. Maybe Montreal hasn’t proved a three game a week team but the Union are 0-2 on the weekend after a midweek game so far with both losses 1-2 at home (New England and NYCFC). Fortunately, this was their last midweek regular season game.

  4. Curtin didn’t sound optimistic at getting players back from injury for tomorrow but in the photos that the Union just posted on Facebook from today’s training Vitoria and Casey are both practicing.

  5. DarthLos117 says:

    Montreal 2-1

  6. One question.
    Why Wenger? If you put Andre Blake in there it would be an upgrade. If you put a ball kid there it would be an upgrade. If you put the lucky fan from Section 138 row H seat 11 in there it would be an upgrade, if only because that person would probably show an interest in playing the game, unlike Wenger.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Rob – Honestly, Wenger because every time I put out a lineup without him, he starts. So why fight it?

  7. Wenger must have some pretty good dirt on Curtin… Either that or Curtin is just a bad coach of the offense.

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