Thank God the off-season is over. I'm not sure I could have taken another week of heart palpitations and high blood pressure during l'Affaire Drogba. Luckily, once the Chelsea legend confirmed he would indeed be playing for our beloved Impact the good news began to roll in.
Cameron Porter is in training, and is better than ever. Lucas Ontivero, an Argentinian attacking midfielder, was acquired by Montréal from Galatasaray. Most importantly, Harry Shipp, the Chicago Fire's central midfielder, was brought into the Impact line-up. These two players come into an Impact team that desperately needs to diversify its attacking options up top, to complement Drogba. Both of these players provide a stable outlet up top.
Amplifying these changes will be some noticeable absences. Dilly Duka has parted ways with the Impact to pursue a career in Europe, along with Nigel Reo-Coker who is looking to return to his native England. Additionally, Eric Miller was traded to the Colorado Rapids, and Justin Mapp moved closer to home.
I am not thrilled with the loss of Nigel Reo-Coker, but I think that Eric Alexander, Kyle Bekker and Harry Shipp are all much more capable replacements in the midfield. Additionally, I am not even concerned about Dilly Duka or Justin Mapp leaving - perhaps erroneously. Both did most of their damage on the wings, and with our new additions to the squad, Piatti could find himself out left, where he is more comfortable, with Ontivero, Romero and Venegas on the right. In my mind, that's an improvement.
However, it's the training and tactics that most intrigue me, rather than the acquisitions and departures. This is, by my estimation, the most depth the Impact have ever had. Every single position is covered by experienced journeymen, and many of them are quite young for their array of talents. This will allow Mauro Biello, and his coaching staff, to try new things with different players. It will allow the Impact to try and develop something they have rarely had in the past: a wide variety of tactical options in a diverse league.
Below is what I think will form the basis of the Impact line-up in 2016, in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Forward: Didier Drogba
Offensive Midfield: Ignacio Piatti, Harry Shipp, Lucas Ontivero, Johan Venegas
Defensive Midfield: Marco Donadel
Defense: Donny Toia, Laurent Ciman, Wandrille Lefèvre, Ambroise Oyongo
Goalkeeper: Evan Bush
Feel free to agree or disagree, but even if you want to tweak a player here and there, or make a substitution or two, this will most likely be the core of the Impact for the 2016 season. That line-up is as competitive as any in the MLS, and could go toe-to-toe with any in the Eastern Conference and stand a very good chance of winning. Sure, they might not be a juggernaut, but there is still a third DP slot left for the Impact to exploit in the summer transfer window, should they so choose.
I know that a lot of people are not a fan of Venegas on the right wing either. I admit, he took quite a bit of time to adjust to the physical game of the MLS, and the pace of the opposition. However, his performance in the 2015 MLS playoffs make me think he deserves a place beside Ontivero, who brings European tactical knowledge and skill to the right side of the pitch. It also frees up Ontivero, and even Shipp, to track back if the other team presses high, while still leaving a fast counter attacking option that can find the back of the net. Oh, and I'm secretly hoping for a few more of these:
But from the fan perspective, the most important thing this season is that every position has a tried and tested alternative. If Donny Toia is injured, we have Maxim Tissot. If Oyongo or Lefèvre have a bad game, Hassoun Camara can step in. Trouble on the wing? Andrès Romero (when healthy) and Dominic Oduro are always available. Even in the midfield, Kyle Bekker, Patrice Bernier and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé are all MLS calibre options.
The one position that is lacking the level of depth that is consistent with other positions is the forward role. While it is almost impossible to replace Didier Drogba as a target forward, both Anthony Jackson-Hamel and Cameron Porter have produced goals with limited minutes, and are comfortable on the ball. I, as a fan, feel comfortable with either of them being in the line-up should Drogba need to rest or come off. I think Dominic Oduro is much more capable as a winger, but his 8 goals in 2015 show that he is a capable player.
I simply cannot get over how deep this team is. I remember the days of the A-League, when the Impact would have to throw a 17 year old onto the pitch if a star player was injured. God forbid anything happened to Tony Donatelli or Eduardo Sebrango in those days, or the Impact would sink. Now, our third string goalkeeper started for the National Team against the United States. And he is starting between the pipes for the Academy team.
If you've been an Impact fan for a while, let that sink in for a minute.
The 2016 line-up is deep and tactically complex. It also just might just be the best one the Impact has ever fielded.