Match previews

Preview: Union at Montreal Impact

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
What: Regular season game
Where: Stade Saputo
When: Saturday, May 14 at 5 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Drew Fischer; Linesmen: Corey Parker, Gianni Facchini; Fourth Official: Jose Carlos Rivero

Montreal Impact were going to score goals when they put Didier Drogba in front of Nacho Piatti and Harry Shipp. The question was always whether they could figure out a system that didn’t lean so heavily to the left that the squad became predictable and easily locked into one side of the pitch. It has taken a while, but Mauro Biello is slowly getting everybody on the same page.

Early season Montreal could counterattack through Dominic Oduro, and they could attack up the left through Shipp and Piatti. But against teams that could separate the deep lying midfielders from the front four, the Impact found their attack blunted, and even Piatti’s preternatural technical skills couldn’t overcome the lack of chances Montreal generated going forward.

Even now, with Harry Shipp patrolling the center of the park behind a meandering, whimsical, and dangerous Drogba, the Impact are not entirely sure how to move the ball through midfield.

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Spreading it out

Without a clear path from the back to Shipp, Montreal has become quite adept at utilizing width, even if they are not very efficient. Laurent Ciman is never shy about busting out his Steven Gerrard impression and smashing long-range, crossfield passes to the corners. If Ciman moves the ball to the right-hand side of the pitch, the Impact look to move up the flank then switch it back across to Piatti, who likes to use Maxime Tissot as a decoy and drive into the box. And it’s hard to describe the transformation in Piatti when he is on the ball, but it’s magnificent. All that is required to turn Piatti from a loping defender to a nuclear powered attacker is the ball and some space. With that magical round orb, he becomes stronger than any two defenders. And he can score goals like his opener against Columbus. Which… I mean, just watch.

Biello likes to position his fullbacks high up the pitch to space out the defense. Ideally, the Impact can force an opposition defender to step onto Tissot, leaving Piatti isolated against a central defender and any midfielder that dares to come close. And midfielders should be wary about getting tight: Piatti may not be a diver, but he does seem to have a very adaptive center of gravity (which, yes, is a great idea for a Jason Statham movie).

By using width, Montreal can establish isolation for Piatti early and for Dom Oduro late. Piatti tends to find a rhythm as the match develops and draws more and more resources from the opposing midfield. The Impact will attack up the left early then look to Oduro on the run.

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How do the Union respond?

Multiple teams have tried to stretch the field to mitigate the effectiveness of Philly’s pressing. It rarely works, but it does put extra miles on the tires of a midfield that does not have age on its side. The key player for Philadelphia’s defense, then, may be Chris Pontius. If Pontius is diligent about closing down Ambroise Oyongo when the Impact switch fields, Fabinho will be able to stay deeper and give himself a cushion against Oduro. If Pontius gets sucked inside, Montreal can run at Fabinho and that’s the signal to move from analysis to prayer.

The Union have succeeded defensively (tied for third in the league with only 10 goals against) by making it very difficult to play past their press in the air. CJ Sapong’s relentless chasing and will need to be targeted at Ciman on Saturday, since the big Belgian is the key distribution point that could allow the Impact to move the ball past the Union press. If Philly can force Ciman into hurried or short passes, and limit access to Harry Shipp, they have a very good chance for stealing points in Montreal.

Piatti Power

Moving from the broad to the specific, a lot of the Union’s game planning comes down to: What do we do when Ignacio Piatti has the ball? Philly’s rookie defenders have faced a lot of good attackers this season, but none in the form that Piatti is rolling with right now. On Saturday, Columbus put a lot of effort into tracking Piatti when Harrison Afful went flying up the right flank. Wil Trapp was constantly shifting to his right to push the Argentine into wider positions; the Union must do the same.

Curiously, the Impact haven’t quite figured out what to do when Piatti doesn’t hit the ground running. They should simply play through Harry Shipp, who covers a ton of ground and is never shy about looking for a creative pass through the defense. But Shipp can get lost in matches when teams match up to Montreal with three midfielders. A dogged desire to provide a short option leaves Shipp sprinting sideline to sideline when he should be more conservative with his energy and pick his spots carefully. If he doesn’t get the ball, Shipp can look like he’s mimicking Vincent Nogueira’s movements, but doing it thirty to forty yards further up the pitch. In a sense, Shipp takes himself out of the match by trying so hard to get into it.

Montreal's fullbacks are aggressive but the back line stays deep, meaning there are pockets to attack behind central midfield early, and behind the fullbacks once the Union get into the middle third.

Montreal’s fullbacks are aggressive but the back line stays deep, meaning there are pockets to attack behind central midfield early, and behind the fullbacks once the Union get into the middle third.

Philly going forward

The Impact have moved their defensive line progressively deeper throughout the season, but the fullbacks still play an aggressive style by moving into midfield to track runners and provide numbers. Unlike Philly’s front line, the Impact attackers are not disposed to chasing, and the fullbacks often have to step into midfield when opposition fullbacks are left completely unmarked.

Philly’s best attacking option on paper is to exploit the space behind Tissot when the fullback charges into midfield. Columbus found repeated success up the right flank but struggled to convert with Federico Higuain’s final pass a bit off all night.

The Union should also be able to get behind Montreal’s central midfield duo by drawing them to the touchlines. Both Donadel and Patrice Bernier are excellent tacklers, but they also tend to be ballhawks. With a deep back line, this gives a player like Tranquillo Barnetta a huge pocket of space to play in. The key to creating that space is to play wide then look back to the center. Going vertical is extremely difficult because Donadel and Bernier will take up deep, central positions unless dragged out to the wings.

Other notes

Montreal does not cross the ball very often. It’s just not what they do.

With that in mind, Philly needs to be smart about getting tight to skill players in the final third. The Impact do settle for a lot of long shots, because they would rather put a ball on frame than loft it across the face of the goal.

The Impact are also at their weakest when retreating on defense. This is no astounding insight, but it points to second runners as key to Philly’s offensive success on Saturday.

Lineup choices

Will Jim Curtin rotate with a home match against DC United looming on Friday?


Discovering that you have a “best eleven,” as Curtin undoubtedly has, brings with it questions about what exactly serves as the intangible element that holds everything together? Is it the presence of Tranquillo Barnetta? Is it the specific combination of Barnetta-Pontius-Le Toux? Will it all break down if Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle play together and Nogueira’s passing range is absent? Curtin must look at all these things before the MLS summer starts picking off groins and hamstrings.

If anybody needs to be rested, it is Barnetta. However, if anybody seems like the glue sticking this team to the top of the standings… it’s Barnetta (and Andre Blake, to be fair). Sitting Barnetta leads to a waterfall of questions: Do you replace him with attacking prowess of Ilsinho or the power of Roland Alberg? Or do you pull Leo Fernandes out of left field and hand him a start in the middle?

Against Montreal, the argument against Alberg should be especially strong. The Impact, led by Donadel, have no qualms about pounding the snot out of an attacking midfielder. In fact, one issue Columbus struggled with on the weekend was Higuain taking up deeper positions to protect himself from harm. The Union cannot afford to have Alberg lose focus under that sort of treatment (Saturday’s referee, Drew Fischer, is the referee who ejected Alberg in Seattle), and though Ilsinho comes with no guarantees given his attempt to turn a preseason match into a scene from Game of Thrones, the Brazilian’s upside remains greater.

For Ilsinho, the big issue is moving without the ball so he can receive the pass in position to run at Montreal’s back line. If he stays in front of the midfield, the dribble-heavy style he favors could result in turnovers finding their way to Piatti’s feet far too quickly.

A more obvious move for Jim Curtin is to rest Brian Carroll and give the impressive Warren Creavalle another run in midfield. The big question for Creavalle is whether he can retain his positioning and avoid going in hard for tackles on Piatti and Shipp. Marking Piatti is all about shadowing passing lanes, and giving up free kicks to the Impact — and Drogba, specifically — is crazier than getting yourself traded because you weren’t allowed to take a penalty kick.

Finally, there is going to be a start or two for Ray Gaddis somewhere in these next two weeks. It could come on Saturday, with Gaddis matching up with Oduro’s speed (especially after Fabinho got too tight to Khiry Shelton over and over against New York City).

But let’s be clear: Fabinho and Rosenberry are the starting fullbacks because they are the best fullbacks on the team. And it’s not close.

That is not meant to disrespect Ray Gaddis, it’s simply the way it is.

Fabinho was an awful defender when he joined MLS. Not all the time, but consistent inconsistency is a very good way to lose the trust of your fans and your coaching staff. Curtin stuck with the Brazilian, and has been rewarded with far stronger play and only a few moments of madness. Gaddis, for all his one v one ability, still struggles with positioning. Specifically, he is quick to lose it and slow to recover it again. Furthermore, the West Virginia product needs to show maturity in his aggressiveness. When the ball is played to the wing, he immediately wants to close it down, even when the ball carrier is not a threat to attack the box and is too far out to cross, or without options. This is a situation in which the Union would be better served by letting their defense rotate and holding Gaddis in the back line.

These mental lapses are far less obvious than Fabinho’s slapstick blunders, but they can be equally dangerous. Gaddis is a wonderful option off the bench, and he deserves chances to show he’s learning how to balance his natural desire to attack UnionMTLthe ball with a better understanding of his role in the defensive system. But the starters are Fabinho and Rosenberry. And that’s how it should be for now.

Prediction: Impact 2-2 Union

Montreal started the year with two home shutouts, but the last two visitors to Stade Saputo have dropped deuces on the blue and black so let’s go with Philly doing the same. Still, two strikes against Montreal guarantees little when Didier Drogba is lurking up top. Drogba moves about as well as Steven Gerrard these days — if you could focus in on a camera shot of just the two of them on the field, it might appear to be in slow motion. But like Gerrard, Drogba is smart with his movement and he retains the vision to find key passes that others do not.

As always Philly will need to be smart and lucky. And they continue to need industry to lift the team from the middle of MLS to the top tier.

Gathering two points against LA and Montreal is no huge loss, but nabbing four would be a clear indication of Philly’s trajectory going forward.


  1. CJ needs a rest, too.

    • pragmatist says:

      This is true…and also a problem. Who starts in his place? Herbers? He’s a completely different player. Alberg? Seba? Move to a 4-4-2 to accommodate 2 of them to make up for him?
      I don’t have an answer. Just pointing out that our lack of a #9 backup is on display when he needs a break.

      • John Ling says:

        Sometimes, Le Toux will make a nice replacement up top for CJ. But based on Adam’s description, I don’t think this match is one of those times. If the CBs are going to lay deep, that really takes away Le Toux’s best attribute as a forward – running off a defender and getting onto a through ball.
        If we wanted to sit CJ here – and I don’t think we need to – I’d say first-choice replacement is Herbers. Kid has really strong off-the-ball movement. Second choice, for me, would be either Alberg or Barnetta, with the other one playing the 10. Third choice would be Pontius.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Agreed the team just had 11
        days off.

      • To be fair, I’m completely OK with starting herbers somewhere in this stretch. He’s shown excellent movement in his brief cameos, and he’s certainly fit enough to play 90. The trick is, how important is CJ’s style of play to success in our system? I’d argue that our CAM would need to be the guy that draws extra defenders and plays with his back to goal. Alberg would be best suited to do that. If we gave them a run out on a rest night, it could pay dividends. At the very least we’ll learn something

      • pragmatist says:

        The “back to goal” question is the issue. And I like your Alberg/Herbers solution. But that feels like an Open Cup lineup experiment, more than a game against a division rival.
        I think it’s way to early to sit CJ because we think he’s tired. Come June, yeah, but we’re too early in the season.
        Hopefuly by the time it is necessary, we’ll have a solution. And I like Alberg at CAM, mainly because he’s the most physical of the options. That’s needed if you’re going to play the equivalent of Power Forward at the #9.
        Maybe Pontius. But he always seems better off making runs and finding space coming in behind the play.

      • Definitely like the way pontius plays the wing for us. Don’t want to move him around if we can help it. Those late arriving runs are brilliant, won us the Columbus game already this year. Its the right flank where we can shift people up and around if need be.

  2. Shirt number twenty-six says:

    What about goalkeeper Matt Jones, left back Taylor Washington and winger Cole Missimo – have their MLS contracts with the Philadelphia Union been abruptly canceled?

    • John Ling says:

      Washington and Missimo have been playing with Bethlehem. Jones has been the backup from time to time for Blake.

    • No need for Washington and Missimo. Better for them to develop at Steel with the team being pretty deep right now (although Missimo hasn’t been getting minutes there either)
      Jones is an interesting situation. He’s been Blake’s backup whenever McCarthy is with Bethlehem, but when Steel don’t have a game, Jones has been dropped in favor of the young local boy. Basically getting no minutes at all right now. We rate McCarthy that much higher I guess

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      No contract cancellations. They are loaned to the Steel from the Union, and I am assuming with the right of recall, as are several other Union players: Yaro, Herbers, Restrepo, Ayuk, Fernandes, Anderson and McCarthy. I am expecting Ken Tribbett to be added to the loaned list if Yaro keeps starting for the Union.

  3. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    Matt Jones was added to Bethlehem Steel FC’s roster at the official USL website early Saturday morning.

  4. Wow it is so nice to love a team that finally loves its self back a little. I’m excited to see Nogs score twice in a week!

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