Match previews

Preview: Union at Montreal Impact

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Who: Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
What: Regular season game
Where: Stade Saputo
When: Saturday, July 23 at 7:30 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Ismail Elfath; Linesmen: Corey Parker, Kermit Quisenberry; Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu

Montreal Impact might be the most difficult team to predict in MLS right now. There are some constants: Ignacio Piatti is dangerous. Always, anywhere, any time. Second, Dominic Oduro is fast. Third… well, um…

The theme of the Impact’s season has been inconsistency, particularly over the past two months. It is a testament to Mauro Biello’s coaching that his team is in the thick of the playoff hunt while sending out a carousel in back, a main striker who only has the legs to contribute in fits and starts, and a playmaker who still can’t entirely figure out his role.

It is also a testament to the power of Piatti.

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A full strength Montreal side features Didier Drogba in front of Nacho Piatti, Harry Shipp, and a rotating support player on the right. Two holding midfielders do yeoman’s work protecting a back line that drops deep in a hurry then scurrying forward to help rotate play across the front to open space for Drogba (and Piatti at the back stick).

Last time Philly faced Montreal, Nacho Piatti played exclusively in the left channel.

Last time Philly faced Montreal, Nacho Piatti played exclusively in the left channel.

Those holding players have been all but interchangeable since Marco Donadel went down with injury, and that has been fine because the center backs behind them can move the ball pretty doggone well if the midfield breaks down. Laurent Ciman brings the additional ability to carry the ball forward. Wandrille Lefevre and Victor Cabrera can also bypass the midfield with longer passes, though they benefit from the extra attention Ciman gets when he’s on the pitch.

Remember, though, this is what a full strength Montreal side looks like. Unfortunately for Biello, it is not one he can send out very often.

Returns and new pain

The Impact should have Piatti and Ciman rested and ready to play on Saturday. The former is coming off a yellow card accumulation suspension (though he should have seen red) and Ciman is likely to return from a sprained ankle (the MLS injury report trolls-links you here). However, Lefevre is now out with a knock, meaning Biello’s first choice defensive partnership remains a pipe dream.

Bigger issues in midfield

Philadelphia Union have rotated Ken Tribbett and Joshua Yaro successfully, but building a good defense usually starts with a strong, consistent pairing in central defense. Increasingly, though, it also requires a balanced duo protecting the backs. For Montreal, this has been a huge problem.

Eric Alexander, Patrice Bernier, Kyle Bekker, and Calum Mallace are all mediocre players in aggregate, but each has a lot of variance in game-to-game performance. Over the past three matches, Biello hasn’t named a consistent pairing in central midfield, and he has been rewarded with scrambling, confused defense against New England, very deep play on the road at Portland, and a bright but inefficient display against New York City. The NYC showing featured Mallace and Alexander, and the duo were far more aggressive and active than previous tandems.

Still, they were hardly more effective; over three matches, Montreal’s holding midfielders have produced two key passes, and only two interceptions and two tackles in their opponents’ half.

Bigger issues than the bigger issues

A major contributor to the struggles of the holding players to stamp their imprint on a match is the absence of an attacking midfielder. Nominally, Harry Shipp fills the role, but the former Fire creator has been off the pace all season.

There is no single thing that explains Shipp’s problems this season, and two goals in his past three matches suggests he may be turning a corner. But a closer look suggests… nah.

Shipp notched a putback off a set piece against Real Salt Lake and scored on a cross that snuck past a not-so-good goalie last weekend. His 0.8 key passes per game remains far, far off his creation pace in Chicago, where he averaged 1.8 key passes/match over two seasons.

Unlike New York, Montreal's back line is likely to sit deep and create space for their own passing.

Unlike New York, Montreal’s back line is likely to sit deep and create space for their own passing.

When Philly first faced Montreal this season in the 1-1 road draw on May 14, it looked as though Shipp was unsure what to do in a more clearly defined central role than he’s had in the past. Over the past five years, MLS creators have built on a little trick mastered by Javier Morales: Move wide, then come back inside to the channel when nobody in the middle is looking. It’s a lot easier to sneak into a hole when you’re coming in from the wing than it is to escape the eyes of a defensive midfielder as you shuffle out to the channel. Shipp often started on the right wing in Chicago and fluttered into the middle where he had enough time to pick his head up and pick out runners (which he’s very, very good at when he has the space).

That isn’t the role Biello wants the 24 year old to play in Montreal. The Impact give Piatti a great deal of freedom because, hey, he’s earned it. This year, the hope was that Piatti would boost his goal tally and the Impact wouldn’t lose any creativity because Shipp would be in the center finding runners and attracting attention. The idea has half-worked.

Piatti is the second leading goalscorer in MLS, but not because Shipp is pulling attention off of him. Instead, Piatti often just makes his own shots. The Argentinian’s goal against Portland is a perfect example of a player who is in the zone turning nothing into something. And he’s done it all year.

Tellingly, Shipp looked far more menacing last weekend when Piatti was suspended. Shipp was able to start on the left and come inside, finding space the way he used to in Chicago. In short, he’s a good player but looks lost in the center. His movement is slow or uncoordinated, and his penchant for spreading the field hasn’t meshed with the team’s need for short combination play in the final third. Shipp can be better, but he might need to go somewhere else to do it.

What to watch out for

For Montreal, watch out for Andre Blake. Or just watch him:

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Obviously, Piatti is the biggest threat for the home side. And that’s saying something since Didier Drogba is likely to start up top for the home side. Drogba hasn’t been quite as scintillating as he was last season due to a hamstring issue, but he scored last time these teams faced off and he will have a lot more information on the Union defenders this time out.

When their big center forward plays, Montreal has a tendency to shove volume crosses into the area and let the attention drawn to Drogba open up Piatti for second chances. Additionally, Biello likes his center midfielders to push up and lock the ball in the final third. This can mean the Impact get two bites of the apple at times, but it also exposes them to the counterattack.

Interestingly, Philly has been relying on deeper buildups over the past few weeks with Tranquillo Barnetta in more of a box-to-box role. Roland Alberg is less proficient at driving into defenses, and the Union have shown a tendency to look more dangerous when breaking from deep now that the Dutchman is installed as a No. 10. Though this has certainly worked well thanks to Chris Pontius’ excellent form of the past, well, season, it is likely further away from Jim Curtin’s ideal. That said, it should be a good fit against Montreal, who possess the ball well in deep midfield positions but can get caught high trying to hold the ball in.

Finally, Philly should pressure Evan Bush on set pieces. He’s generally been strong but has had issues controlling his box the past two weeks.

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Union lineup questions

Joshua Yaro was excellent the last time these teams faced off. He was perfect with the ball in the opening half and added two interceptions, two clearances, two tackles, and two blocks in a scoreless second frame.

However, Curtin seems quite happy with the Marquez-Tribbett partnership right now, and Tribbett held his own against a feisty and mobile New England attack in US Open Cup play on Wednesday night. Both Tribbett and Yaro have shown that they can play every night in MLS, but they also throw in a fair number of youthful errors to keep everyone guessing.

And so I’ll guess that Curtin sticks with Tribbett, even though I really have no idea who will be preferred.

Lineup graphic courtesy of Seth Finck

Lineup graphic courtesy of Seth Finck

Warren Creavalle’s continued passing woes mean Brian Carroll is all but certain to fill the deepest midfield role slightly behind Tranquillo Barnetta. Roland Alberg is likely to continue in an advanced role even though his play has regressed a bit over the past few matches. When the goals aren’t pouring in, it’s easier to see how Alberg falls into a clap on/clap off level of defensive effort that puts extra pressure on Barnetta and Carroll. Ilsinho likes to move in from the right and cover for Alberg, letting Keegan Rosenberry keep track of his wing alone, but Ilsinho won’t be available this weekend after he caught a cabbage patch doll on steroids Connor Lade in the head with a stray arm on Sunday. Sebastien Le Toux will be focused on Piatti out wide, and Alberg will need to understand that nobody is filling his shoes if he doesn’t come back and clog up the center. Montreal’s defense is going to put the ball long with accuracy and force the Union’s midfield to rotate. In those moments, whether Alberg drops in to help or not will be crucial.

Prediction: Union 1-0 Montreal Impact

With Le Toux and Rosenberry bracketing Piatti, and Carroll preventing Drogba from becoming involved as a hold-up man, Philly should be able to create more, and better, chances than the home side.

That said, Jim Curtin knows that Biello could throw on Dominic Oduro down the right, challenging the aggressive Fabinho for speed. The Union’s Brazilian fullback has had issues against speed his whole MLS career, and Oduro is one of the faster, if inconsistent, players in MLS.

One big storyline to watch is whether his penalty last weekend gets CJ Sapong back on track. He wasn’t great against New England in the US Open Cup, and his penalty in that match didn’t bode well for the future. But finally getting on the scoresheet for the first time since the Union played Montreal in mid-May could get Sapong finishing again. Pay attention to the big striker’s shot output in this match; he hasn’t had multiple shots on goal in a game since, again, the last time these teams met. That’s too long.


  1. Lucky Striker says:

    It’s a road game.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    His play last night makes me wonder whether Mike Grella’s headlock and throw to the mat may have done something to Barnetta’s core muscles. I get that his knees may not have liked Hayhad’s turf, but he just did not look quite right.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Anyone of a certain age can attest to Jake the Snake Roberts use of the DDT as a finishing move…. even though it was often preceding with a slap on the hapless’ ass ~ a lethal finish.
      I was just pleased to see The Calm could continue as he may have been the first ever let alone at optimal efficiency.
      Now The Camel Clutch….. that’s for another game Im sure.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        El P, probably I am too old to get the references. 🙂

      • I demonstrated the Camel Clutch on my nephews and little cousins. They are half terrified of it, half mesmerized by its effectiveness. A classic.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        What about the Cobra Clutch? That will ellict some real discomfort if you put that on someone.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Barnetta didn’t look right vs NYRB either. He was moving around like someone with a bad back (and that was before the Grella takedown).

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Be nice to see Union assert itself the next few games. Dog days of summer being what they are.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Need to start grabbing a road win here and there. Especially with only six home matches the rest of the season.

  4. Maybe a Killer Kowalski Claw hold in midfield will do the trick.Also Sapong is gonna break your heart all year.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    An airplane just flew past my beach spot after the one that said Promotion Relegation for US Soccer~~~ it said simply… Y.A.R.O

  6. pragmatist says:

    This would be a good run of games to get Herbers more meaningful minutes. He has certainly earned them recently.
    I see a start for him in the near future…

    • I agree. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the CAM spot instead of Alberg. I said many weeks ago that I didn’t really see Alberg as a CAM — his impressive run of goals was all poacher forward type stuff. Herbers was really impressive subbing in for him in the NYRB game.

      • Totally agree on herbers, but his running isn’t quite barnetta good yet. One of the reasons I prefer barnetta in the CAM role behind sapong is his willingness to run off the brilliant hold up play CJ produces. The reason I still like alberg back there is his ability to drift into spaces vacated by defenders following runners. I think CJ, for all his athleticism, doesn’t force guys to move and create space for players behind. This is where herbers can find his niche playing for us. Let him do the running in front of alberg and create the oceans of space where rebounds and simple drop passes find the Alberg’s considerably strong shot.

  7. I liked Tribbett early on, but am concerned that he has provided the starting points for two goals in the last two games. Sunday, his dribbling into trouble led to his turnover and a goal against; last night, I didn’t think that his foul on Kamara (if I recall the correct player) was a smart foul, either for location or need to foul. While defending on set pieces last night reminded me of the bad old days, I still don’t think that the foul was warranted, and the goal had a disastrous effect. I would prefer to see Yaro and Rosenberry together with Marquez back there.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      As simply as can be asserted strongly, Tribett is limited.
      He’s at ceiling.
      It’s likely the manager sees himself in part in this player.
      IMO it is an absolute no brainer from game footage, Yaro is the superior player.

      • Spot on. Curtin absolutely sees himself in Ken.

      • I respectfully disagree that Tribbet is at his ceiling, el P.
        We have to remember that this is his rookie year. He has the tools and his reading of the game will improve over time so the dribbling into trouble when the opponent is on a high press should change.
        I agree that Yaro is the better player right now and has the higher ceiling, but currently I don’t think it is by a large margin. Tribbet has the size and strength to hang physically with larger strikers better then Yaro does. Yaro has shown he is scrappy and can hang with larger players but he will likely lose out more often then someone Tribbet’s size. Both players are good on the ball but I think Tribbet’s problem is that he gets nervous/antsy/rushed when under pressure more then Yaro does. This should change as he gets better at playing faster and knowing when to play out of the back verses clearing upfield. Yaro has made rookie mistakes himself – remember his half-hearted tackle against Manneh during the Vancouver match?
        In any case, it is good to have the depth the team has.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Sound reasoning.

      • This exchange was awesome.

      • +1, rational arguments presenting a case(there are few absolutes in life) make the comments section a great read

  8. scottymac says:

    2-1 MTL

    Union haven’t shown an ability to score away. 9 goals in 9 games is flailing. Will need to get fixed or the postseason will be brief.

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