I just want to start off by saying that believe it or not, this result did not surprise me in the least. I know, I know, we were playing against the Barcelona of Mexico, the Yankees of Central America, the richest team outside of Europe, bla, bla, bla. Predictions of 3-0 all the way to 7-1 were bandied about with straight faces. The Impact were given as much of chance as say Porto FC winning the European Champions League.
And yet, despite going up against the juggernaut that is América (not to be confused with like, ALL of America), I wasn't convinced of the demolition everyone expected. Why? Simple: Our defence. Sure, we've looked crummy at times this year; who can forget the Houston game? That said, I knew going into Wednesday's contest that IMFC's shape and tactics were going to look nothing like that match.
If the Impact have displayed one strength in particular this year, it has been defending in the box against high possession opposition. I don't know if its Enzo Concina's influence or just the fact that Laurent Ciman is a beast, but this has been the one aspect of their game that they can truly hang their hat on.
The Impact played a nearly perfect defensive game at the Estadio Azteca, giving up practically zero counter attacking opportunities to their opponent. For the most part, América's offense was kept at bay, with most of their attempts on goal coming outside of the box. There were some dangerous shots to be sure, but I'll accept a perfectly weighted, curled shot to the top corner from 25 feet out that goes in, over say, a tap-in, every day of the week. Remaining compact and behind the ball was only one part of their recipe for success, however.
In my opinion, the Impact's biggest quality on the night was their composure and discipline in and around the box. Before the free kick in the 88th minute that resulted in the tying goal, IMFC had conceded, get this, ONE foul in the final third the entire game. Against an opponent that controls possession as well as the Mexicans did, that's a real achievement.
One major issue that has to be addressed however is aerial coverage. Despite being the smaller of the two teams, América were at their most threatening on headed crosses into the box. Who knows what the score may have been had the Impact given up a few more dangerous set pieces in and around the area.
Another issue that probably no one will discuss is our counter-attacking prowess (or lack there of). Let's put it this way: if Houston had our defense and were playing against América on Wednesday night, they probably would have won 2-0, at least.
Whenever the Impact found themselves in a good counter attacking situation (and it happened on several occasions against América), it was almost like they didn't take them seriously enough. On at least three counters that I can think of, one Impact player or another played a ball that was either severely short, or long. It's just not good enough. If this is going to be your bread and butter to beat the best team around, you need to make more of these chances.
Even on the Oduro chance (which was a no-doubt red card), Piatti's pass is behind him. On other occasions, it appears as though everyone is looking to get the ball to Piatti so he can orchestrate the play, instead of making the making more decisive (and correct) pass.
Simply put, if the Impact can somehow fuse the confidence they show on defence into their counter attacks, they stand a good chance of winning the CCL next week.
Coach: Frank Klopas- 7/10
I initially gave Klopas more credit than he deserved for starting Camara over Cabrera, before I found out that the latter was injured and there wasn't really any other option to go to. When the game began I cheered the decision, as Camara has more foot speed and brute strength than Cabrera, and I thought it was a smart change. The defensive tactics employed were obvious, but he nailed them all the same, and the substitutions were also spot-on. Duka played very well, but Tissot came on at a good time to provide fresh legs, and Bernier seemed to appear just as it became noticeable that Reo-Coker was out of gas.
K: Evan Bush - 7/10
I might get chewed out for saying this, but I thought it was a bit of a mixed bag for Bush on the night. Indeed, he made a few top-shelf saves, but one can't ignore an equal number of bobbles, ones that easily could have resulted in scoring chances. I also thought he could have been better with goal kicks and distribution in general, as he just seemed to boot the ball away aimlessly half the time. I'm aware that his goal was to waste the most time possible by kicking it away deep each time, but in reality, he would have taken more time off the clock by throwing it wide to his teammates and subsequently keeping possession.
CB: Laurent Ciman - 9/10
Along with Mallace and Toia, easily one of, if not the best player of the game. You can't imagine how many times I wrote "Ciman heads away" or "Ciman tackles" in my game notes. He was literally everywhere he needed to be on the pitch, and more. We don't come home with a 1-1 draw without him.
CB: Bakary Soumare - 8/10
Not as omnipresent as Ciman, but barely a missed kick, bad touch, or mistimed tackle all game long for the Malian. There was maybe a couple of occasions that he and Ciman got their lines crossed in the box, but overall he was as solid as you could hope for in front of Bush.
LB: Donny Toia - 8.5/10
To think that Toia was left unprotected in the expansion draft (yes its true) and might not be on the Impact right now is sort of scary. Like Ciman, the name Toia came up a lot in my notes, and was almost always a positive remark. Of all the Impact players, he's the one guy who never seems to tire, despite doing just as much running and defending as anyone. With Ciman, he has been the most reliable player on the pitch this season for IMFC.
RB: Hassoun Camara - 7.5/10
Hassoun needed to step up this game for a number of reasons, and he did it in a big way. Was rarely caught out of position and made a number of excellently timed (admittedly heart in my throat, though) tackles, some that led to decent counter movements. Sadly came off due to injury for Miller, who was simply not as match-ready as he needed to be.
DM: Nigel Reo-Coker 5.5/10
Compared to everyone else, Reo-Coker was so-so. The Impact play a 4-2-3-1, but they looked a lot more like 4-1-4-1, with Mallace doing most of the heavy lifting in the holding role. Reo-Coker rarely did much serious defending, though was always well positioned on the Impact counter attacks. All in all, he just wasn't extremely implicated in the overall team schema it seemed.
DM: Calum Mallace - 8.5/10
Calum strikes again! After spending most of my footy-writing energy last year telling the world that Mallace needed to play more, and specifically in the defensive midfield role (instead of at the time, Felipe, facepalm), the Scottish-born dynamo (yes I said it, dynamo) put in one of the best defensive midfield performances I've seen by an Impact player in a while (ever?). He moved the ball with purpose and composure, rarely if ever making a wrong decision. On at least two occasions he made inch perfect passes that you'd expect in European Champions League, not Concacaf. Defensively he was sound, tackling and heading away with the kind of ease and composure that belies his years.
This tweet said it best:
When did Montreal trade for Michael Bradley and change his name to Calum Mallace? #CAvMTL— MLS Atheist (@MLSAtheist) April 23, 2015
LM: Dilly Duka 7.5/10
Dilly might not have been spectacular offensively, but he more than made up for it on the defensive side of the ball, continuously retreating into good defensive postures, covering for his left flank counterpart, Toia, when necessary. He also contributed to the play of the game, performing a superb dummy on the Piatti goal.
CAM: Ignacio Piatti - 7.5/10
I'll give him credit for the goal, which was a fantastic finish, but sort of disappeared after that. For a player of his quality, I would have liked to have seen more composure and creativity on the ball in the Impact's other counter movements. I know he can be better, and he might have to be in the CCL finale.
RM: Andrés Romero - 7/10
Great to see Romero get the start on Wednesday. Easily one of the best Impact players last year, it's just a matter of time for him and Piatti to link up. Along with Duka, was very impressed with his defensive awareness and work rate. Unfortunately his foul led to the América goal, but considering it happened in the 88th minute, you can't be too hard on him, especially since he's played a full game just once this year.
Striker: Dominic Oduro 7.5/10
Considering that the Impact rarely had the ball in dangerous areas, Oduro did a decent job of drawing fouls (surprisingly only one yellow in my opinion) and keeping the América defence honest. Made the most of one of his few forays around the box, making a perfect pass into Piatti for the opening goal. Known seemingly for his speed alone, Oduro has impressed this year with his passing ability, which is a pleasant surprise.
RB: Eric Miller - 4/10
The youngster came on for the injured Camara, and as expected, it wasn't pretty. You couldn't expect a lot from a player who hasn't played a single minute of first team football this year, especially against a team as desperate to score as América were. Was beaten on the right flank on a few of occasions, relying on his teammates to pick him up in dangerous areas.
RM: Maxim Tissot - 6.5/10
Took over Duka in the 71st minute and didn't miss a beat defensively, using his speed and positioning effectively. Tissot kept a no-nonsense approach for the most part, clearing the ball away when necessary, and didn't try to do too much. Could have been a bit more composed on the ball, but didn't make any big mistakes either.
CM: Patrice Bernier - 6.5/10
Nothing special from Bernier, but did his job well enough. Didn't see much of the ball possession-wise, but was consistently in the right spot defensively to break up most shot attempts down the middle.
I have a few of takeaways from this game. One is that Mallace has proven, to me at least, that he can handle the holding midfield position on his own. Watching the game on Wednesday, I could easily see the Impact being successful playing a 4-1-4-1 or even a 4-1-3-2. Besides when we play against teams that have a counter-attack heavy style (like Houston), I think we can afford to play more of an offensive formation.
In relation to that thought, I'm less and less a fan of Reo-Coker, and don't see him as being a particularly positive player on the team moving forward, at least not as a defensive midfielder. It's becoming increasingly similar to my dissatisfaction with Felipe as the year progressed last season. Klopas kept playing him in a role that he was, let's face it, horrible at, and it took forever for the team to figure it out. With Reo-Coker, I can only see him being effective in a flat-four midfield formation, a position that better suits his more forward-thinking approach. It's clear that he's not at his best making key tackles/interceptions or tracking back defensively.
Finally, If the Bush yellow card sticks and he misses out on the CCL finale, I wonder if the organization will consider trading Kronberg, who is cup-tied, for another MLS team's backup. It might be worth it at this point to pick up a goalie with some kind of MLS experience, even if it's just for a game. I'm not convinced Klopas and Co. will go with an NASL goalie (no matter how good he is) for one of the most important games in North American club competition history.
See ya'll next week! Montréal, Allez, allez!