So, we’ve officially entered the MLS offseason. Despite the fact that there are no games to look forward to, I find this an incredibly interesting time, since we slowly but surely discover how well teams adjust to what their perceived weaknesses are.
In the case of the Montréal Impact, it is fairly obvious: defence was their main weakness, and should be their main concern moving forward. That’s not to say the offence was a juggernaut. In actuality, the team went through long stretches of offensive futility, where they could barely string 3 passes together. Still, by the end of the year, they had figured it out how to get the offence ticking, with the counterattack becoming their calling card.
Things never really got stabilized defensively however, as was illustrated in the two-legged semifinal versus TFC where they conceded seven goals in total. Montréal had difficulty all year long both in limiting dangerous crosses into the box, and defending against said crosses. Some of these problems are down to defensive tactics on set plays, issues that surely the coaches will be addressing in the offseason.
Will they implement new marking schemes such as zonal marking? Will they look more at personnel choices, as in who should mark whom on any given set piece?
For us fans and bloggers, there is only so much we can really speculate on with any kind of precision. One thing I do know for sure though is that fullback play was never up to par this past season, and changes need to be made in that regard. At the end of the season, the Impact had zero natural right-backs in the squad, and 3 natural left-backs (Ambroise Oyongo, Donny Toia, and Amadou Dia). The latter two were only ever used on the right side, and neither ever looked comfortable there.
Hassoun Camara was generally the starter all season at RB, and though he looked the part at times, (even scoring and assisting on a few goals), he clearly never should have been relied upon to carry the load for as long as he did. Camara is a centre-back after all, and centre-back is not a position that requires the work rate and stamina that the full-back position does.
One could argue that Camara played exceptionally well based on his winning of the IMFC Defender of the Year award, but at the end of the day, when your team gives up 53 goals, 9 more than they conceded in 2015, that award maybe doesn’t mean a whole lot.
It does at least point out, however, how much the rest of the defence struggled, and that includes the centre-back combo of Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera. I tend to blame the Impact’s wide players for allowing far too many quality crosses into the box and subsequently putting more pressure on the CB’s than they could handle, but either way, IMFC’s overall lack of physicality was found out in 2016, and the organization will need to address this important issue in the coming weeks.
Duvall in, Toia and Venegas out
There was some good and not so good news that came out of the 2016 MLS Expansion Draft this week. The good (dare I say great) news was the Impact’s acquisition of Chris Duvall, a young, athletic right-back from the Red Bulls (via Minnesota), with a good amount of MLS experience. The talented defender was coveted by technical director Adam Braz, and for good reason: the Impact desperately needed a natural RB to shore up the defence, and him being one of the more talented ones in the league was icing on the cake.
Let me briefly explain why this is a hugely important pickup, and how this will affect the team going forward.
The fullback position is, in my opinion, one of the most demanding positions to play in football. The new modern day fullback is now required to be as much a part of the offence as the defence, forcing the player into a lot of running. On top of that, the fullback is rarely subbed off, meaning he better be as durable as anyone on the club.
Where both Camara and Toia failed to live up to these high demands (stamina, offensive aptitude, playing on his wrong side, etc.,) Duvall ticks all the boxes required in a good FB. A huge problem for IMFC in the semifinals was defending late in games, and much of it was due to not being able to close down wingers on the flanks. Camara, a natural CB, was forced to defend against a fresh player in both of those games late on, and it was just too much to ask. A player like Duvall, who is used to playing heavy minutes at this extremely demanding position, would have had the stamina and wherewithal to handle the pressure.
This acquisition will allow Camara to either play full time at CB or spot start at both CB and RB. Going into next season, this puts the Impact in much better stead than how they ended it 2016.
Going out were two good players, Donny Toia and Johan Venegas, with I’d argue the former being the more important of the losses. Though talented and coming in to his own by the end of the season, Venegas was/is not an indispensable component of the team. He never locked down any particular position on the team, and though he showed offensive spark off the bench, the team’s offence will not suffer without him.
Toia, meanwhile, will be missed, mostly if you consider him only for his abilities as a LB. Let’s not kid ourselves, the American fullback never looked right at RB (no pun intended) and like, Camara was forced into a job that was a bit beyond his means. As a LB though, one will remember the job he did all of 2015, and how he was arguably as important to the club as any defender, including Laurent Ciman.
Had he not been drafted by Atlanta, the team would have had excellent stability at the LB position with both him and Oyongo. Without him, the team is an injury away from a headache at a position that is, let me reiterate, hugely important.
IMFC should sign _________
If it were up to me I would focus on two positions primarily, left-back and central midfield, and secondarily centre back. In a perfect world I’d also look for another RB, but last I heard money doesn’t grow on trees, so the combination of Duvall and Camara will have to suffice for at least the 2017 season.
There are a few interesting, experienced left backs on the market, such as Chris Wingert, DaMarcus Beasley and Corey Ashe. All are over the age of 30 and probably on the wrong side of their primes, but all could offer a lot to the Impact in more ways than one.
Both Ashe and Beasley provide the requisite pace and stamina needed to feature in the Impact’s up-tempo style of play, and both have the offensive capability to fill in as a left midfielder/winger. Despite the fact that Harry Shipp is still on the roster, the Impact are missing the counterattacking ability they have on the right side with the likes of Dominic Oduro (who will probably be re-signed), Andres Romero (who has already started training) and Michael Salazar. Yes, of course, they have Nacho Piatti, but when you think of the Montreal’s bench down the stretch, you’d be hard pressed to think of a player you’d trust to come onto the pitch. Especially when protecting a lead, what better player to bring on then a fullback that is a natural defender but also excellent in a potential counterattack.
Wingert would provide a slightly different look, one of a player that can fill in at CB, so basically the opposite profile of a Camara. At 34 years old the New York-native might be at the point of his career where he is willing to become a role player, which might be exactly what the Impact need. A steady veteran MLS-er, Wingert has averaged about 25 starts a year over the last 9 years, with 18 in 2016.
In central midfield, there is a glut of players who are either getting on in age or considered middling (pun intended) midfielders. With the addition of CM Blerim Dzemaili, the Impact will get a lot of help come July, but the team could still use a player that could either start or come off the bench and be consistently solid, mostly in a defensive capacity.
Calum Mallace was for the most part the first defensive mid off the bench, and though he’s not horrible, at 26 years old, I don’t get the impression that he will get much better. The team could/should look to upgrade here, and potential available players currently in the MLS are Will Johnson and Jacob Peterson. Both are solid veterans of the league, and provide a bit more edge than Mallace and much more offensive awareness. As far as comparisons go, think Eric Alexander or Davy Arnaud, perhaps.
To be honest, with the Impact normally looking at Italian, French or Argentinian players first and foremost to fill out there squad, don’t be surprised if none of the players I mentioned get a call. Profile-wise though, this is where I truly believe the impact need to be focusing on in the next couple of months.
Stay tuned to Mount Royal Soccer over the following weeks, as we’ll keep you to date on all the free agent, transfer wire goings on. It should be fun!