Character is one word that can describe almost every edition of the Montreal Impact since 1993. This word was used in 2012 and even more in 2013 as the Impact fought its way to the top of the Eastern Conference; and deservedly so.
With a mental toughness that was praised throughout the city and MLS, the difficult summer months are coming to test the might of the second-year expansion club. With 20 years of history behind it, the Impact will not permit itself to fail just because of a win-less streak. Adjustments are obviously needed but warning signs were looming during the last few weeks.
Warning Sign #1: Block Bernier's options
It all started when the Impact lost 2-0 to the Columbus Crew in Ohio. The loss itself was not a disaster but the Crew was able to asphyxiate Montreal by blocking Patrice Bernier's options. Bernier will not find it difficult to free himself from his markers and any pressure from opponents. That is why he is one the best midfielders in MLS this year.
But when the likes of Felipe Martins and Justin Mapp do not get the ball, Marco Di Vaio is left alone. Andrew Wenger had a few chances to score a goal but a desperate and efficient Columbus team prevailed.
Warning Sign #2: Play in the gaps between the midfield and the defense
Though, Di Vaio is much more active on the physical side of his form. It showed against the Houston Dynamo especially with the return of Daniele Paponi to the lineup. The young Italian striker brought size to the front with speed and an underestimated talent to score goals. He also creates more space and time for Di Vaio. The first half against the Houston Dynamo was an explosive as the Impact could have scored easily scored 3-4 goals. Even though the 2-0 victory brought confidence and joy to fans, media and the club itself, it did leave a sour taste in my mouth.
The Dynamo had a B+ team that still produced excellent soccer and more importantly found a gap in Montreal's tactical ploy. Even with Bernier playing a deeper role, he is still left alone for many of the defensive duties and the Dynamo took advantage of that. A bit of luck for the Impact, an efficient Di Vaio and a clumsy Dynamo midfield and the damage was less than expected.
Warning Sign #3: Overpower the Montreal midfield
And the Colorado Rapids did that perfectly. The 4-3 win was not accident as some would like to think. That same gap ,that we just talked about against the Dynamo, became a canyon. Neither Felipe, Andrea Pisanu nor Andres Romero could perform correctly defensively. Against a young physical but talented Rapids midfield, the canyon got bigger as the game went on and the visiting midfield outplayed the Impact's.
Warning Sign #4: Defensive problem and it's just not the defenders
The derby against Toronto FC could be categorized as a special event as both teams played with emotion, heart and the nerve to avoid losing the game. The Impact's character came back to save it and with it the talent of skilled players that orchestrated a comeback for a 3-3 tie at BMO field. All the drama and emotions can cloud what lessons can be learned from this game. But the more you pressure the Impact back-line, the more it stays deep in its zone.
Even if the Nesta-Ferrari duo has not looked as stellar as before, the bigger problem seems to come from the lack of support from the players in front of them. Not that it is intentional but the defensive mentality in March-April has not been as sharp.
The 1-1 tie against Chivas USA could tone down the fears of a slump and it's important for the players and the club to keep things simple. Also, the great form shown by Sanna Nyassi and Collen Warner is good news towards the depth of the club. As I tagged them as potential trade baits, both players could be key players down the stretch, during a difficult month of July.
With lackluster efforts from Andrea Pisanu and inconsistency from Romero, the Justin Mapp dependence is at another level. Blake Smith could claim a spot as a starter sooner than later but Mapp is slotted to be with the group travelling to NYC to face the New York Red Bulls.
As the July transfer windows opens in less than 24 hours, we might expect the Impact to make some moves to bolster the squad while not disturbing the chemistry of the core group. Though Nick De Santis has been quiet on potential moves you can expect the Sporting Director to be in talks to get some depth and quality.