After picking up hard fought wins in Seattle and Portland during the first two weeks of the MLS season, the Impact are back in Montreal as they get ready to face 401 rivals TFC in their home opener at the Big O.
We asked our friend Duncan Fletcher (Twitter @DuncanDFletcher ) from Waking The Red (Twitter @WakingTheRed) to help us get to know more about the new look TFC and what kind of threat they shall be against the Eastern Conference leading, new look, almighty Montreal Impact!
When the hiring of new manager Ryan Nelsen was announced, many poked fun at TFC. He was still an active player, there were no guarantees if he would join the team in time, he has no managerial experience, etc... Now that he is on the job, what does he bring to the table? What has he changed in TFC's culture, organization and playing style?
The initial reaction was indeed one of shock and derision but, after some time to think about it and let the dust settle, it just isn't a big deal. There are a few reasons why: 1) They probably knew exactly what the timing would be but just couldn't say so (perhaps for contractual/administrative reasons). 2) He didn't really miss much time after all (thankfully). 3) If the coach is good enough, he is worth waiting for. If the same scenario would occur but the announcement was that Jose Mourinho would be the new manager, no one would complain.
Although the initial results have been impressive, we still don't know if Nelsen is the right coach for TFC. His lack of experience doesn't help. I guess we won't know the answer for a while. While the roster hasn't been at full strength yet and it remains a work in progress, the tactics we've seen so far have been a pleasant surprise, especially on the defensive side of the ball where we can truly see a change in play and mentality compared to recent years.
We now play a high pressure style of defense (which caused the first goal against Kansas City). The defence is doing a good job of clearing up any long balls that come their way. When the opposition does keep possession into our half, the defence and the midfielders are clogging up the middle which forces opponents to the outside to put crosses in and that is where our central defensive pair of Darren O'Dea and Danny Califf generally do a good job at winning the ball. It's still on the ugly side but it's a welcome shift in focus and mentality for a team that gave up 62 goals last year.
Nelsen is also a welcome change to Paul Mariner, on and off the sidelines. He's generally calm during the game itself as opposed to Mariner who was very actively coaching throughout the game. His press conferences are very realistic. He gives honest opinion on just how far TFC have to go rather than Mariner's, often ludicrously, talking up how well TFC played. It's still in the early days, but it all seems very professional so far.
TFC has made a big number of changes to the roster. Who are the key players that left? Will they be missed? Who are the new key additions and what are their roles this season?
The revolving door just keeps on revolving. Other than 5 players that could have had an impact, those who left were never going to be more than bit players. The players who will be missed are Torsten Frings, Eric Hassli, Ryan Johnson, Milos Kocic and Joao Plata. However, last season, they were on and off, hit and miss and didn't really end up helping the team as much as they should have. TFC isn't at a place where a luxury player like Plata can help or where the extra quality of players like Hassli and Frings can put them over the top. Their cap space can be better served by building quality throughout the squad.
Joe Bendik looks like he is a decent and presumably cheaper replacement for Kocic. The one I'll miss most is Ryan Johnson. He's just the kind of player a team like TFC could use and I could see him doing very well with Portland.
One player who joined the team, who is similar to Johnson with more of a pedigree, is Robert Earnshaw. So far, he has looked lively up front and has showed his goalscoring ability with a couple of goals last week. John Bostock impressed last week on the right wing but, he's a tricky winger with no right foot so I'm not convinced he'll be a consistent performer for us. The best new addition so far has been Danny Califf. I had my doubts about how well he and Darren O'Dea would work, but so far it's all positive. Califf is great at using his body to block out the forwards and has dealt well with a lot of crosses into the box over the first 2 games. Also, his experience and know-how have been very helpful to cover for Richard Eckersley when he's attacking or pressing high up the pitch.
Is this the year that TFC makes the playoffs? Why or why not?
No. There is simply too much to bounce back from. Last year's team was terrible and we had a very thorough purge which puts us further back. The rebuild came very late so we didn't really get the benefit of a true preseason either. Payne and Nelsen would have to be miracle workers just to get to the playoffs. If we can get some of the basic things right this year such as improving the squad, getting a consistent formation and style ingrained, then that will be considered a successful campaign to build upon.
BONUS: Ex-Impact forward Justin Braun is now a TFC player. His time in Montreal can be described as 'frustrating' or 'unsatisfying'. What will be his role with the team this year? Can he actually contribute to any success TFC may have this season.
Up until about 2 days before the season started, he was our only centre forward and he was also concussed. Things have improved since then and, injuries not withstanding, when he recovers he'll be a bench player at best. He'll be nothing more than an alternate choice when we need a more physical presence than what Earnshaw provides.
Scouting report: Who should the Impact fear most and why? I'll say John Bostock. He showed a lot of skill last week so may be able to mesmerise Montreal's full backs this week. If he doesn't beat them with his skill, well, don't be surprised if he starts flopping. His tactic of knocking the ball past the defender, run into him and then falling over was a huge for him against SKC. With Baldomero Toledo as the ref, there's all sorts of potential for cards to be given out.
Probable formation and starting lineup: Right to Left Joe Bendik; Richard Eckersley, Danny Califf, Danny O'Dea, Ashtone Morgan; Terry Dunfield, Jeremy Hall; John Bostock, Hogan Ephraim, Reggie Lambe; Robert Earnshaw. A 4-2-3-1, which will probably play more like a 4-4-1-1. There might well be players returning from injury who get in there, such as Julio Cesar or Luis Silva, but I'll guess at an unchanged XI.
Final score prediction 1-1
You can read Waking The Red's Duncan Fletcher answers to Giovanni's Questions here.