Match previews

Preview: Union vs Montreal Impact

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Montreal Impact
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, September 10 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Armando Villarreal; Corey Parker and Kathryn Nesbitt; Jaime Herrera

The last time Philadelphia Union faced Montreal Impact, things did not go well. Didier Drogba was fairly unstoppable and Ignacio Piatti was his MVP-caliber self. The Impact’s five goals topped the Union’s shots on goal total, and that’s not good.

But that’s just what Montreal, with two sensational attacking players, can do sometimes. Rarely will five of seven shots on frame go in, even when they come from good positions. For example, on Wednesday night Drogba could have had another hat trick. But after letting in a soft opener, Joe Bendik leveled up with two incredible saves — one on a penalty — to keep the big striker at bay.

Another reason Montreal likely won’t repeat their July heroics is that the Union will have Alejandro Bedoya in midfield this time. Though Eric Wynalda may disagree, Bedoya has shown the skills required to glue together the Union midfield. His transition defense allows Tranquillo Barnetta to make deep runs into the opposition half, and he builds triangles with wide players that draws opponents out of the center. In short, he’s been very good, but very subtle in his contributions.

Breaking down the Impact

This weekend, Bedoya will be tasked with the dual task of breaking down the Montreal midfield while keeping a close eye on Piatti in Montreal’s left channel. Going forward, the Union will need to draw out the Impact’s central midfield then navigate in behind to either run at the center backs or find wingers in space once the central defenders commit.

Attacking Montreal requires moving Hernan Bernardello out of the middle of the pitch. Depending on available personnel, Bernardello plays either at the base of a midfield triangle or alongside an aggressive holding midfielder like Calum Mallace, Marco Donadel, or Patrice Bernier. Mallace struggled mightily on Wednesday night, and although Bernier had bright moments after replacing him, the best bet might be Donadel alongside Bernardello on the road Saturday.

The reason Bernardello is so important to Montreal’s defense is that he makes it difficult to penetrate up the center even when the center backs step too high or follow play wide. The Impact back line is constantly under construction due to injuries and international duty, and the result is a group that brims with talent, but can easily cross each other up. Below, you can see Amadou Dia power down after Laurent Ciman travels wide to help defend. This is both a positional and a communication issue, but it only becomes a real problem because Hasoun Camara, who has shifted between right back and center back this season, is a few yards behind his teammates. In short, confusion reigns.

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To better manage their defense, Montreal has developed an interesting lopsided formation. With Didier Drogba as point man, Nacho Piatti slides high up the left hand side, so he is almost in line with Drogba defensively. From there, Piatti can cut out the first pass from center back to fullback when the ball comes to his side.

Orlando passing between 1st and 2nd goal.

Orlando passing between first and second goal.

But more importantly, Piatti can spook the opposition into going up Montreal’s right. The other winger — Dom Oduro or Michael Salazar — plays deeper than Piatti, allowing the first ball into the fullback. Once the ball is on the wing, Montreal moves in and collapses space, attempting to force the ball to stay on the wing. This system lets Piatti cheat forward, and it also means Bernardello’s midfield partner is stepping up to pressure while the Argentinian holding mid can stay central.

The trick to attacking Montreal, then, is figuring out how to make them defend up their left. It sounds easy enough, but it’s quite difficult to figure out. To the left you can see Orlando’s passing chart from Wednesday night between the 4th and 36th minutes or, in other words, between Orlando’s first and second goals. There are a couple of incomplete passes up the right, and a pair of 21st minute passes from Matthias Garcia Perez. Otherwise? Not much action.

The first reason it’s tough to get behind Montreal on the right is six letters long and it can do things like this:

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It’s difficult to push forward when it means leaving a player like Piatti isolated on a fullback. In the Union’s first meeting with Montreal this season, Keegan Rosenberry earned a lot of praise for his 1v1 defending on the Argentinian wizard. In the last encounter between the teams, Piatti came out ahead, exploiting Philly’s stretched midfield to peel off of Rosenberry and tear the Union apart.

Another way the Impact make it tough to attack up their left is by pushing their own fullback to be aggressive high up the pitch. With the aggressive and mobile Laurent Ciman to cover, Montreal will discourage advancing up the flank by pairing Piatti’s high positioning with tight coverage from either Dia or Ambroise Oyongo.

The Union’s answer to this system is Tranquillo Barnetta. The Swiss midfielder was an overall liability against Montreal in July when he played in a deep role, but he’s the key to attacking the Impact’s weaker flank on Saturday. Barnetta’s best skill — of many — is his ability to receive the ball and quickly drive forward, forcing the defense to make quick decisions about who goes to him and who holds shape. If Yaro is restored to the lineup as he likely will be, Philly can exploit the deep attacking shapes they can create with Yaro, Bedoya, Barnetta, and Rosenberry to work up Montreal’s left.

The reason it’s so important to attack that flank is that it forces Montreal’s best defender, Ciman, to either play positional defense or get his reads perfect stepping forward. Ciman’s fatal flaw is that he’s a bit of a rogue. All that skill and ability can manifest in a belief that he should be able to have freedom that being part of a back line doesn’t actually allow. He will step forward to challenge a midfielder, move very wide to close down attackers (even if he doesn’t have cover in the center), and with the ball he will bypass easy options.

Ciman should leave midfielders to Bernardello unless he absolutely needs to step forward; Bernardello is mobile and aggressive, and Montreal is very deep at holding mid precisely because they encourage rough play and accept that bookings may necessitate changes during the match. But Ciman doesn’t like to stay in the back line, and with all the upheaval in the Impact’s back four this season, this makes the left side of Montreal’s defense even more vulnerable to a sustained battering. Below, you can see how poorly Ciman reacts when he doesn’t have midfield protection. Bradley Wright-Phillips peels off of him while Ciman shapes up to defend… the man with the ball, maybe?

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Add to all of this that Evan Bush may miss Saturday’s showdown after receiving a questionable red card against Orlando on Wednesday, and it’s clear that Philly’s ability to pressure Montreal’s back four could result in a lot of opportunities.

Finally, attacking Montreal’s left means that the counterpress is in good position to close quickly on Ciman after turnovers. As one of MLS’ best distributors from the back, it’s imperative that the Union force the Belgian to play quickly, especially since the Impact will look for him to provide long outlets on the road.

Against Orlando City on Wednesday, Montreal’s most effective period was early in the match when they bypassed midfield and played directly to Didier Drogba, who distributed using his chest and head. During this period, Piatti was able to find space on the left when the defense collapsed on Drogba. As time went on, Orlando adjusted by dropping their defensive midfielders extremely deep when they lost the ball, so they ceded space in front of the defense in order to keep Drogba from playing quickly through their lines.

Montreal going forward

The Union obviously know how dangerous the Impact can be in attack. But it will be interesting to see how the Canadian side sets up on the road. Mauro Biello’s men have only played two road matches since July, and, somewhat incredibly, they have received a red card in both (though they had already given up three goals to NYRB when Oyongo was ejected in August).

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The name of the game on the road has been quick counterattacks that beat a defense down the field or long passes to Drogba. In recent matches, Biello has even adjusted his lineup to fit Drogba’s size, inserting Kyle Bekker as a nominal attacking midfielder who basically plays like a box-to-box man. Unhappy with Harry Shipp’s inability to draw defenders and create space for Piatti, Biello has used Bekker on offense as an extra body that pulls the defense off of Drogba. Instead of checking in to receive the ball, Bekker will make runs to the back line early in a possession sequence, leaving a hole in the middle that Drogba can drop into. The defense is hesitant to follow Drogba upfield with Bekker in their face, so good coordination between defenders and midfield is required to counter this attack. Orlando struggled during the first 20 minutes of the match, and only by starting with their defensive lines very close together were they able to keep an eye on Drogba without leaving Bekker alone close to goal.

Bekker’s runs also allow Piatti the freedom to hang wide or check inside to receive the ball. The Argentinian is far more effective in the channel where he can isolate and run at defenders, but that should not be taken to mean he can’t break a defense down from a central position.

The entire system is held together by using holding midfielders who, while not especially dynamic, tend to be very good at holding onto the ball.

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One of the main reasons Patrice Bernier has slid down Biello’s pecking order is that he has been less consistent than Mallace at simply retaining the ball. Bernier’s instinct to drive forward can be effective, but doesn’t necessarily fit into a system that can create chances with four attackers and little support.

Prediction: Union 3-2 Impact

If Bush is suspended, Montreal’s defense will be vulnerable. Nobody else has played in goal for 27 MLS games, and coming off a midweek match the Canadian side’s age should show. Biello held out Donadel midweek to keep fresh legs for a big matchup with the Union, but Bernardello, Camara, and Drogba all logged a lot of miles playing down a man for 40 minutes against Orlando.

The catch, of course, is that the Impact will punish the Union’s mistakes. And Philly may make a few with a change likely in the back line, Bedoya coming off significant minutes with the US National Team, and Brian Carroll potentially returning to the first eleven.

Lineup graphic courtesy of the life-saving Seth Finck.

Lineup graphic courtesy of the life-saving Seth Finck.

The match will likely be won by the team that can keep the most organized back line. Philly has struggled to hold a strong offsides line, and Montreal’s center backs chase more than they should. If Philly can stay tight as a defensive unit and find Barnetta with enough space to turn, they should be fine.

Though Yaro and Carroll should both return to the first eleven, a more interesting question will be up the right. Fabian Herbers has been good-not-great in Ilsinho’s absence, but Montreal was undone by New York’s quick passing near the edge of the box. Ilsinho brings that in a way that Herbers doesn’t, but fundamentally Herbers offers a better defensive shape, and that should win out if the Union stick to their club philosophy. (There is a strong argument that Philly would be one of the best teams in the East if they could deploy Bedoya’s defensive abilities in a wide role and put a destroyer-type in the center with Carroll. Say… a big, mobile destroyer who used to play for Rangers?)

Montreal’s demoralizing loss to Orlando City, which came after Drogba’s first minute goal was canceled out three minutes later, means they missed an opportunity to pull even with the Union in the table. They have another chance on Saturday. Time for the Union to step up and show they are ready for a playoff-type game.


  1. Anyone else sniffing a disappointing draw out of this one? Maybe 2-2, where we give up a late goal? I hope not…but the quick-hit ability of Montreal always scares me.

  2. I kind of feel like Bedoya’s best quality is being just competent enough and allowing Barnetta to stay upfield. The real question is who will line up next to him? Creavalle? Could BC go 90?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Be a bit surprising if BC can go 90, wouldn’t you think? I would hope for 60, the lead, and dropping Bedoya back as they tend to do with a late lead when he’s in combination with Creavalle.

      • It would be shocking. But I like your hopefulness that he can be effective for 60 and we have a lead.

  3. With Bedoya in the lineup, I think this lineup more closely resembles the one that tied Montreal 1-1 in May when the Union were the team coming off short rest rather than the one that lost 5-1. Given that Montreal is the team coming off short rest this time, hopefully the Union can take advantage of that.
    Also note that the Union could have up to 5 lineup changes from last week, three of them (Blake, Bedoya, Carroll) being significant improvements and the other two (Yaro and Ilshino) just being better match ups against this opponent.

  4. My hope is the short rest and heat keep the Impact from having any!

    • i’m expecting little in the way of excitement from this one. a tired MTL team, the heat, the disjointed Union midfield. but i’ve box seats, so see ya there.

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    No keeper, short rest and a vulnerable back 4 anyway. No finishing, injuries and the growing premonition the floor is about to give way.

    If I could have any current MLS player to start a team with today Piatti would be the choice. Love his game. Union have no ability whatsoever to deny him if he’s in the mood…..

    Desperation squared = 1st of 3 draws down the stretch.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Hope you’re right.
      The next three on the road could easily be a losing streak. I don’t know Giovinco’s playing status, but Altidore is in good form. Portland is a hike and a tough place to play. Red Bulls in Jersey is also a difficult proposition.

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