The Montreal Impact will head into New England on Saturday with a bevy of potential outcomes on their mind. Every point matters, as two wins in the final two games of the season could result in a second place finish and a coveted bye. Alternatively, two disappointing results could see Orlando leapfrog the Impact and take the final playoff spot away from them.
The 2015 edition of the MLS playoffs will work much in the same way that the NFL playoffs operate. The top 6 teams in each conference will be seeded 1 through 6. The teams finishing in 1st and 2nd will get automatic byes to the second round, whereas teams 3-6 will have to participate in a one-game first-round playoff.
To help us visualize the playoff structure, let's imagine the playoffs would begin today. Here's how the ranking would go:
1: New York Red Bulls
2: Toronto FC
3: D.C. United
4: New England Revolution
5: Columbus Crew
6: Montreal Impact
In this scenario, both NYRB and TFC would get byes to round two. DC United would play Montreal in one match-up, while New England would play Columbus in the other. For the sake of this exercise, let's say that DC and Columbus both win. This would result in a re-seeding of the teams like this (notice Montreal and New England have been removed):
1: New York Red Bulls
2: Toronto FC
3: DC United
4: Columbus Crew
From here, NYRB would play Columbus and Toronto FC would play DC United in a two-game home/away aggregate series.
With so much potential movement in the East's playoff seeding, the question now becomes how would IMFC fare against the different possible opponents?
The Impact are 2-0 against the Crew this season - beating them 2-1 in Columbus in June and then 3-0 in Montreal in July. The Crew typically employ a system similar to Montreal's in which they have a lone target striker (Kei Kamara) and an offensive centre attacking midfielder (Federico Higuain). To compliment this Columbus employs two holding midfielders, one of which is USMNT's Will Trapp. On the wings expect to see the likes of Justin Meram (Iraqi National Team) and Ethan Findley. Their defense may leave a little to be desired, but is overall average.
Despite the 2-0 record against Columbus this season, Montreal would be in for a tough game. Kamara, who is a goal machine, is arguably the best forward in MLS and Higuain has given the Impact a headache in the past. Moreover, Columbus boasts international quality in other sections of its midfield (Meram and Trapp).
The key here will be the way each team's central defenders match up against the other's forward/CAM combination. If Laurent Ciman and Hassoun Camara/Victor Cabrera can keep Kamara off the score-sheet and the ball off Higuain's foot near the box, then the offensive output of Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti will be enough to get past Columbus.
Vs. New England
The Impact are 1-0-1 against the Revolution so far this season - tying 0-0 in March in Boston and beating the Revs 3-0 in September (their final meeting is this Saturday). As many teams do, the Revs make use of a single-striker formation with either Juan Agudelo or Charlie Davies up top. But their strength is likely in their midfield with the likes of Kelyn Rowe, Jermaine Jones (USMNT), but probably most importantly Lee Nguyen.
The difference between this potential opponent and Columbus is that the onus would be on Montreal's holding midfielders instead of their centre-backs. Both holding midfielders would have to clog the middle and not give Nguyen room to maneuver. If a combination of Montreal's Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker, Calum Mallace, and Patrice Bernier (and even Eric Alexander?) can make life difficult for New England's Nguyen, then the Impact have a superior team otherwise.
Mauro Biello would probably opt for starting Calum Mallace as one of his two holding midfielders who is likely the only one of the group who can run as many kilometers as Nguyen without fouling him. Reo-Coker may also have to start on the bench as we have seen in recent games that he is more inclined to play a box-to-box style than a holding style.
Vs. DC United
The Impact are 1-2 against DC this season, with the Impact winning the latest meeting. Contrary to Columbus and New England, DC is not shy to play a double striker system with Fabian Espindola and the recently acquired Alvaro Saborio. They can do this because of their strong starting midfielders. Montreal Impact fans can expect to see the offensive Chris Rolfe on the left side and the workhorse Nick DeLeon on the right side.
In the middle the Impact would likely face Markus Halsti (Finnish National Team) and Perry Kitchen (USMNT), but don't be surprised to see Davy Arnaud get the start if a DC-Montreal playoff match-up is the case. DC re-built their defense through MLS's free agency mechanisms when they finished last two seasons ago.
The two-striker system may leave DC susceptible to quick counter-attacks. This means that if the Impact can mobilize their left and right backs (no reason to believe it won't be Donny Toia and Ambroise Oyongo) as well as their wingers, they have a chance to catch DC out-manned on a quick rush. This is where IMFC fans should cross their fingers that the Andres Romero injury coincides with the return of Justin Mapp.
A Mapp/Oduro combination on the wings would be a signal that the Impact have committed themselves to pushing forward on the wings at the expense of defensive responsibility there. This may be worth the risk as the Montreal defense seemed to be capable of handling Espindola and Saborio simultaneously the last time the two teams met.
Vs. Toronto FC
The Impact are 0-2 against Toronto this season in regular season play. The only consolation there is that both games were played at BMO field on the banks of Lake Ontario.
Living in Toronto, I have no choice but to be inundated with news about Toronto FC and their first ever MLS playoff berth. And a warning to my compatriots back in La Belle Province, these guys are good. They began the year by spending Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment's money and everyone was ready to watch the expensive science experiment fail once again (similar to the Jermaine Defoe saga). But it didn't fail. TFC's preferred formation has typically been a two-striker system but they have used Jozy Altidore or another forward alone up top before. But it wasn't until Sebastian Giovinco made the transition to forward that the team really took off.
Before this move TFC had their 3 Designated Players create a spine up the middle of the field. Michael Bradley (USMNT) was a central holding midfielder, Giovinco (Italian National Team) played as a centre attacking midfield, and Altidore (USMNT) was at the forward position.
When Giovinco made the move to join Altidore up top, Bradley moved up to play right behind the forwards. This left Benoit Cheyrou to play as a lone holding midfielder. When Cheyrou proved he could handle the responsibility, and Bradley looked more comfortable with some offensive leeway, the move was permanent. This resulted in Toronto have an attacking triangle that is second to none in MLS and costs more than the entire Impact roster combined.
Not to mention the fact that Sebastian Giovinco is probably the best individual player in MLS and should, in my opinion, win the MVP. This is truly the only possible match-up that Impact fans should hope doesn't come to fruition.
There is no easy way to beat Toronto, especially when all 3 DP's are in the lineup. The Impact may simply have to outscore TFC in a high-scoring game - something they likely would not be able to accomplish even with Didier Drogba. If the key to beating Columbus are the centre-backs and making sure Kamara can't be himself, and the key to beating New England are the holding midfielders and chasing down Nguyen, and the key to beating DC are the wide-outs and the counter attack, then the key to beating TFC may simply have to be Evan Bush.
Bush may have to steal a goal or two from the likes of Giovinco and Altidore for Montreal to have a chance. If Bush can put together a small highlight reel, then the Impact can beat Toronto on superior defense and wingers. Otherwise, Toronto may not only be celebrating their first ever playoff berth, but their first ever playoff win, too.
Of course, IMFC must first clinch a playoff spot before any of these scenarios could occur.