Match previews

Preview: Union at Montreal Impact

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Stade Saputo
When: Saturday, August 22 at 8 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, DirecTV
Whistle: Edvin Jurisevic; Linesmen: Daniel Belleau, Gianni Facchini; Fourth Official: Mark Kadlecik

Philadelphia Union have never won in Stade Saputo. Needing three points in every match to keep slim playoff hopes alive, they face a Montreal team on the rise this weekend.

And the Impact, tied with San Jose with the fewest goals scored in MLS (though the Quakes have fewer goals per game), are bringing some new firepower to Saturday’s throwdown.

Let’s not beat around the bush: This match has a big headline, and his name is Drogba.

Oyongo and Miller vs DC United.

Oyongo and Miller vs DC United.

What does Montreal need Drogba to do?

There has been some odd tension in the Montreal offense over recent weeks. Ever since Jack McInerney was dealt to Columbus, Frank Klopas has relied on Dominic Oduro to lead the line. Results have been consistently inconsistent. Oduro has a different style than McInerney, but their goals remain the same: Both players want to get behind a defense. McInerney has proven to be a reliably smart striker who makes sneaky runs off the shoulders of defenders and sometimes finishes those runs. Oduro is reliably fast, and to the extent that he can get a running start, he can run past any defender in MLS. Like McInerney, however, Oduro has never added that finishing touch to his game.

The tension, then, comes from the verticality of the Impact’s strikers and the patience of their buildup. The Montreal midfield has quietly grown into a formidable unit, albeit one that doesn’t take its attacking boots on the road. At home, Marco Donadel, Ignacio Piatti, and Andres Romero are chance creation machines, all averaging at least two key passes per match. On the road, Donadel sits much deeper and the midfield tends to churn the ball around the middle third without producing any cream.

Montreal’s road offense, to the extent that it exists, has come from exploiting sleepy defenses that creep too high chasing possession. That is to say, the Impact go long.

As they chase a playoff berth — with two games in hand on NYRB and Toronto and four on the other top teams in the east — Montreal is searching for ways to produce more offense from their possession game. To that end (and because, come on, why not), Joey Saputo has brought in one of the best hold up players and finishers of the past decade: Didier Drogba.

Montreal dominated DC but lost 1-0 because they struggled to finish. Drogba can help that.

Montreal dominated DC but lost 1-0 because they struggled to finish. Drogba can help that.

What can Drogba do?

Finishing aside, the other part of Marco Di Vaio’s game that McInerney never learned to emulate was runs to relieve pressure. Di Vaio played the offsides line not merely to create chances, but also to provide an outlet. He would curl through a channel and head to the corner, attacking a center back if he was isolated or simply hauling the rest of the team forward if he had no clear route to the box. It sounds like something every striker would do, but it’s actually very difficult to pull off. Those corner runs take a striker out of the offense if the ball isn’t delivered. So recognizing when to go is a skill that appears an art to outsiders.

Drogba is not Di Vaio. His contribution to possession play is not his movement, it is his immovability. Peak Drogba solved the problem of an immovable object and an unstoppable force by embodying both at the same time. Now in his late thirties, Drogba retains the immovability and will use that size and strength combo to provide an outlet that has been sorely missing from the Impact’s game.

Head coach Frank Klopas will be looking at three players to get more involved with Drogba on the pitch. Ignacio Piatti has carried the creative load this season and he should find more space with the big Ivorian on the pitch. Additionally, the Impact fullbacks should be able to get up the field as Drogba holds the ball at the top of the attacking third. The Impact are one of the rare teams with talent and depth in the wide defensive positions, but they are still looking for consistent offensive contributions from Ambroise Oyongo, Danny Toia, and Eric Miller.

Miller started the team’s last match against DC United, and despite getting shut out by the superhero that is Bill Hamid, the Impact pinned the league leaders deep by pushing the fullbacks higher up the pitch. The problem: Neither Oyongo or Miller connected with the midfield in the opposition half. Almost all of their passes were backward and conservative, showing a lack of comfort going forward. Drogba will help, giving the rest of the team an assurance that balls forward will be stay there long enough to get forward in support.

Mapp is back

Another player likely to influence Saturday’s match is former Union winger Justin Mapp. The left-footer returned to the pitch for the first time since March on August 12. He will likely displace Dilly Duka as the first guy off the bench going forward — making his 300th MLS appearance in doing so — and the Impact’s crossing numbers will start to climb as Mapp looks to find Drogba in the box. All of this is to say that Montreal has hung around the playoff race by pairing a mediocre defense with a workingman offense driven as much by set pieces as anything else. They could look very different starting Saturday.

NYRB's aggressive defense prevented Montreal from building out of the back and neutered their possession game.

NYRB’s aggressive defense prevented Montreal from building out of the back and neutered their possession game.

Union defense

As the Impact look to revamp their offense around a new striker, Philadelphia is still trying to find any kind of defense that works over ninety minutes. Jim Curtin said it would be “a miracle” if Maurice Edu plays this weekend, which means Richie Marquez will be paired with either Ethan White or Steven Vitoria once again. White obviously offers the athleticism to deal with Dominic Oduro up front, but Vitoria is a better matchup for Drogba.

The fact that playing matchups based on the opposition’s strikers continues to be a potential criteria for picking central defenders speaks to how much the Union’s defense has struggled. There is just no performance-based reason to choose Vitoria over White or vice versa. Both have had multiple opportunities to lock down a starting role this season, yet they have been passed on the depth chart by a third round draft pick. Even when Union defenders don’t make mistakes — Vitoria successfully avoided the spotlight last Sunday — they have struggled to develop the organization necessary to keep opponents off the board.

The Union have gone all-in on aggressive fullbacks who attack the ball in wide areas, leaving space behind them and between themselves and their central defender. Figuring out how to deal with this space has been a perpetually salient and unsolvable issue for Philly’s coaching staff. To maintain a typical backline, the entire defense would have to haul forward when Gaddis or Fabinho step high. That type of coordination has proven elusive, however, and smart attackers have gravitated toward the space around the aggressive fullbacks as they seek to create. Typically, this has been Sacha Kljestan or David Villa in the left channel, but Chicago used the same strategy to free Patrick Nyarko on the touchline, essentially looking to pull Fabinho high then go wide rather than sit an attacker in the inside channel.

Both strategies have worked, with Jim Curtin’s only answer the double-deep Carroll-Lahoud partnership that puts a midfielder on call to support the fullbacks.

It will be extremely interesting to watch Carroll and Lahoud against Montreal. Donadel pushing forward at home gives Montreal a much more dynamic midfield, allowing Andres Romero to take up advanced positions. Tracking those players up the Montreal right side without losing track of Piatti, who likes to drift around on the left, will be key to keeping the Impact from establishing themselves in the final third and pinning Philly deep.

Laurent Ciman is a good defender, but his physicality can be turned against him. Ciman fouls vs NYC

Laurent Ciman is a good defender, but his physicality can be turned against him. Ciman fouls vs NYC

Keeping Maidana available

Going forward, the Union have one big question to answer: If Cristian Maidana plays (this could be a good time to rest the playmaker), how to free him up? A three assist game is a pretty good way to become the focal point of the opposition’s plans, and with Laurent Ciman returning Montreal’s back four will be more aggressive than they are without their best defender.

The Impact have used Calum Mallace and Eric Alexander to support Donadel and clog up opposition counterattacks. Neither player is on Maidana’s level, but neither is Marky Delgado and Toronto used the young midfielder to keep a body next to Philly’s most dangerous threat at all times. Look for Maidana to drift to the right (as usual) and try to find the spaces Donadel leaves when he pushes up.

Vincent Nogueira is likely to return to action in Montreal, though the extent of his involvement has yet to be determined. It is still unclear how Curtin will fit Nogueira, Barnetta and Maidana together, given that having all three on the pitch means either Sebastien Le Toux or one of the defensive midfielders must be sacrificed. When Barnetta arrived, Curtin talked about using his possession skills to take pressure off the defense. If he truly believes that plan will work, Curtin may be willing to sacrifice a holding player to bring Nogueira back. But with all of the team’s defensive issues this season, Curtin may be reticent to take Carroll or Lahoud out of the eleven.

UnionMTLPrediction: Montreal 2-1 Union

The Impact have scored more than one goal at home six out of eleven times. The Union have given up more than one on the road in eight of twelve matches. So this prediction is just a case of trusting the numbers. And distrusting a defense that looked worn out against Chicago on Sunday.

There will be plenty of interesting tactical moves on Saturday as both teams look to integrate (Drogba) and re-integrate (Mapp, Nogueira) key players. For Philadelphia, this match will go in the positive column if they can leave with any points and anything less than two goals given up. Montreal needs to collect all three points against a team that has the league’s worst road defensive record in 2015 (tied with New England at 27 goals against in 12 games).

At this point in the season, the Union just need to show signs of improvement and growth before September’s US Open Cup final. That means an organized defense. And that, unfortunately, seems very unlikely 25 games into the season.

8 Comments

  1. If resting Maidana is the move, I would like to get another look at a 4-4-2 with Sapong and Nando up top. I’m still on the fence if they can/can’t play together.

  2. I know you’re right about Lahoud and Carroll starting, I just hate the negative defensive play. I know it can be effective and it’s absolutely what Curtin will do on the road, but I would love to take it to them a little bit. Maybe put Barnetta/maidana together at mid with Nandi up too and sapong on the wing, or Sapong/Pfeffer.

    • I’m not sure I want to push Sapong out on the wing. I know in theory he can play there, but he seems to lose a lot of his effectiveness.
      .
      I’m in with CPfeif – I’d like to see a 4-4-2 with Sapong and Fernando up top. A 4-4-2 without Maidana that I think would be interesting would be Gaddis, Vitoria, Marquez, Fabinho; Lahoud, Nogueira, Barnetta, Le Toux; Sapong, Fernando. Barnetta slots into the middle. Nog slots left, but drifts middle when he wants, and Fabinho provides the width on that side. That absolutely has the potential to make the Union’s left side a defensive hole if Nog is inside and Fabinho too far up field.
      .
      With Maidana, an interesting (to me) 4-4-2 would be Gaddis, Vitoria, Marquez, Fabinho; Lahoud, Barnetta, Maidana, Noguiera; Sapong, Fernando. In that instance, you can allow Barnetta, Chaco, and Nog to rotate around as they like to find space and work possession going forward. It still potentially exposes the left side of the defense, though, if (when) Fabinho gets caught up field at the wrong time.
      .
      You could make either lineup slightly more conservative by substituting Carroll in for Lahoud.
      .
      And I’ve said before, but I also wouldn’t mind if they decide to put Le Toux up top in a 4-4-2 with either Sapong or Fernando.

  3. Please stay fit Chaco.

  4. No idea why Curtin would go conservative on the road. What is the point of going for a draw? Win or bust.

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