Get the crash cart... prepare the operating room... page the doctor... we're losing him, we're losing him fast... he's flat lining... SOMEBODY HELP!
Ok, that was a touch dramatic, I agree. However, this describes the Montreal Impact playoff situation perfectly. After giving fans a reason to believe in the postseason dance just a few short weeks ago, the Impact now find themselves in 7th place in the Eastern conference, trailing the 5th place Chicago Fire by 7 points despite having played 2 more games. With only 2 wins in their last 7 games, it seems like the ship is sinking fast. If Jesse Marsch and crew want to save the season and keep any playoff hopes alive, they have to right every wrong NOW! There is no tomorrow. It's do or die. Win or take your ball and go home. Can they pull it off? If they do, it'll be a great accomplishment. What if they don't? What happens then? Is the season a failure? Do they go back to square one?
Let's try to make sense of all this madness, starting with what needs to be done to make the playoffs.
Evan Bush, get your gloves, you are going in!
In goalkeeping school, you are taught the basics. Catching, positioning, wall set up, charging the ball and command of your defense are all things that one must master if he hopes of reaching the professional level. Despite pulling off a great save here and there, Donovan Ricketts seems to be having a really hard time with each one of those categories.
When a goalkeeper is struggling, it puts undue pressure on the shoulders of his teammates. It is hard enough to take care of your own defensive assignment but, when you can no longer trust your last line of defense, that is when the pressure becomes too strong and errors start occurring all over the field.
Every time an opposing player shoots the ball in Ricketts' direction, the Impact defenders know that there is a good chance that the ball will not get caught cleanly or that it will be dropped or juggled. This forces everyone in a blue jersey to over think, cheat and abandon their assignment, even if it is for a split second. Unfortunately, that split second causes blown coverage and missed assignment issues that lead to a higher number of scoring opportunities which translates to more goals against.
On set pieces, the goalkeeper is the boss. He builds the wall, he tells his teammates where to position themselves and he must cover the remaining angles. If this decision making is incorrect, the ball will quickly find its way to the back of the net. All season long, it's been the same movie, same ending, just different actors. The story goes a little like this:
- The wall is either too small or not blocking the right angle.
- There are not enough defenders on the line, specifically at the near post, to help clear the ball.
- Ricketts hugs one post, usually the near post, leaving the second post exposed (where he should be).
- He doesn't make sure that every opposing player is covered.
In all this chaos, the free kick taker quickly realizes all these set up errors and can adapt his kick to take full advantage. How many goals have been scored against the Impact on set pieces? That's right, too many!
The final chapter of Ricketts' book of mistakes is what I call the Bermuda Triangle. In Goalkeeping 101, a keeper learns that either you charge for a ball or you stay back and cover your angles. You can't change your mind halfway. Once again, Donovan has been guilty many times of hesitating on his decision rendering him useless and disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle between the goal posts and the oncoming forward.
The defense is already decimated by injuries. The last thing they need is added stress of an unstable and inconsistent goalkeeper. This is why Jesse Marsch must turn to Evan Bush immediately. Last year's NASL keeper of the year was the biggest positive to come out of that rollercoaster season. He kept the Impact competitive with his great instinctive play and command of his back line. If given the chance, he can solidify the back line, give them renewed confidence and some swagger. A keeper switch with the return of Matteo Ferrari, Nelson Rivas and the arrival of Alessandro Nesta could be just what the doctor ordered to cure the Impact's defensive blues.
Marco Di Vaio, depth and communication
Marco Di Vaio, the DP, the offensive saviour, the man who was going to score in bunches... hasn't scored yet. The easy way out is to say that he's a bad signing, he's not trying hard enough or he's too old. I say take a deeper look as to what is really going on. First of all, he can't do it by himself. He needs help in the form of a second striker. Before you say a word, Sanna Nyassi is not that second forward. For some reason, he wasn't able to communicate well with Bernardo Corradi and the situation is now repeating itself with MDV. If Andrew Wenger returns from injury soon, he'll definitely be a big boost but, realistically, the Impact need a total of 4-5 viable attacking options in order for this offense to succeed. Eduardo Sebrango as the second forward will not cut it. Davy Arnaud, Lamar Neagle or anyone else they throw up there are not the solution. They are midfielders. Period. Nick De Santis needs to get some new blood and quickly.
Second of all, poor communication is killing any offensive flow that this team tries to create. When attacking, either the passes are too late by about 1-3 seconds, the ball carrier holds on to the ball so long that he paints himself into a corner or the attacking players don't move around creating openings for goals. Until this unit starts communicating more and playing up to Di Vaio's speed, the offense will continue to struggle. It wouldn't hurt if Marsch put Felipe back into a centre attacking role so that he can create more plays and open up some space for MDV.
The last thing anything should do is attack Di Vaio for not having scored yet. He needs to receive proper service. All of his teammates need to learn where HE wants the ball. They cannot be late. They cannot make bad passes. They need to get the ball to his feet at his wish. That is why he is an elite striker. Many people have said that his frustration level is obvious on the field of play. He is a legend is Serie A (Italy). He has always scored goals. He is a very proud player. All he needs is that one goal. Once he gets that first goal in, the rest will just flow.
Jesse Marsch and his future
Just as every player has had rollercoaster performances on the field, Jesse Marsch has had his share of ups and downs on the sidelines. As the dreams of the playoffs begin to fade, the rumblings have begun within the media and the fan base that perhaps it is time that Marsch be shown the door. This would be one of the biggest mistakes that this organisation could do.
Let's put this in perspective for a second. This is his first manager's job. The baptism by fire doesn't get any bigger than Montreal. In a championship starved city with demanding fans, an even more demanding boss and often unrealistic expectations, Jesse took on the task of being competitive, trying to make the playoffs, making fans forget the poor season the team had in its final year in NASL while dealing with a depleted roster. That's a tall order for any coach, of any experience, of any pedigree. Despite the fact that he refuses to use the ‘E' word, this is an expansion club. Expectations need to be tempered accordingly.
While some of his decisions are questionable, notably substitutions and their timing, we must not forget that he has led this team to a better win total than TFC or Vancouver in their expansion years, with more than 10 games remaining during this season. That, in itself, is a great achievement and should not be overlooked.
Jesse has shown flashes of brilliance. His fiery passion on the sidelines earns the respect of his players as he is someone who would fight to the death to defend one of his own. He needs time to develop, just like the remainder of this squad. Joey Saputo and Nick De Santis searched long and hard for their ideal coaching candidate. They built this team around Jesse's vision. Jesse is included in every roster decision made. He deserves a full shot. Yes, he needs to improve on his substitutions. Yes, he needs to play Felipe more forward. Yes, he needs to tinker with other parts of his coaching style. Give him time. He'll get there. Joey Saputo is a man of his word. A class act. I truly believe that he will allow Jesse another calendar year before even dreaming of making a change.
But, let's play the game for a minute. Let's say that Jesse Marsch would get replaced by (fill in the blank with the coach of your choice). Would the new coach:
* Make Donovan Ricketts fumble the ball less?
* Make Justin Mapp pass the ball two seconds faster to Di Vaio?
* Make Marco Di Vaio score more goals?
* Make Nyassi co-exist on the field with Corradi or Di Vaio?
* Turn Eduardo Sebrango into a great 2nd forward for the MLS?
* Make Davy Arnaud run faster as a forward to better compliment Di Vaio?
* Find a way to make sure that Ferrari and Rivas never get injured?
The answer to all those, and more, is no.
Whether the Impact make the playoffs or not this season should be irrelevant for Jesse Marsch's job security. Jesse Marsch is developing. The roster has been heavily turned over since the beginning of the season. He deserves a shot to run a second training camp and start a second season with Ferrari, a healthy Rivas, perhaps a healthy Corradi, Nesta, a more developed Felipe, Di Vaio and perhaps even a 2nd or 3rd DP in the fold. Give him a true chance to run this team. You may be asking Joey and Nick to sign him to a contract extension before long!
The key in all this is patience. The Impact, despite recent struggles, still have a shot at the playoffs. Fans can rest assured that the players will do all they can to climb back into the race and secure a spot. Should they fail, they will be more disappointed than any diehard fan. If they make it, they will be more than ready to leave it all on the field as they try to bring the MLS cup to Montreal.
Take a look a TFC's first year. How did they do? Heck, look at TFC this year! How did the Whitecaps do in their first year? I thought so. Smile. The future is bright. Things are going better than some ever expected. Give this team a chance to become a winner. Rome wasn't built in a day. A championship team isn't built in one season.