Just when I thought the Montréal Impact couldn’t play much better than they did on the road against the Vancouver Whitecaps, they did just that, beating the New York Red Bulls in fairly convincing fashion on Saturday by a score of 3-0. Nacho Piatti was once again front and center, orchestrating the Impact attack with another goal and an assist in the contest.
Montréal has been impressive across the board through 2 games, and I think there are a number of reasons for that. When you compare where this team is this year to the exact same time last year, there is clearly a team cohesiveness that has been developed in that time frame that, amongst other things, has the squad competing at a higher level.
Better quality, better chemistry
The 2015 season was a campaign where the Impact did a lot of growing and a lot of soul searching, and it happened right before our eyes. The team brought in 11 or so new players, and it took a long, long time for not only the new players to find their footing, but also for them to all gel together.
We should actually take a step back and really come to terms with how impressive IMFC’s CCL run was. When you take into account the new faces, the struggles for players to find fitness, the injuries that forced players to play out of position, it really was a remarkable achievement. For me, that run to the CCL final helped galvanize the team in spite of their overall talent, which I’d argue was middling at best.
Still, the camaraderie and confidence that was developed in those big, high-profile games helped Montréal survive a tumultuous beginning of the MLS season, and when the ship turned around with the arrival of Drogba and Biello as coach, the team already had a lot of self-belief. While Drogba scored all the goals and created all the headlines, I think Mauro Biello was the straw that stirred the drink, allowing particular players like Piatti, Donadel and Bernier to play to their strengths, while using the burgeoning team chemistry to its fullest effect.
In 2016, Biello has continued to promote strong, aggressive team play but is now blessed with a much more talented squad. Despite the fact that Drogba has yet to play a game and 2 other main contributors (Donadel and Bernier) have either been out or played injured, the team has not missed a beat. The major reason for that is due to the new talent on the squad (Shipp and Ontivero) and certain players stepping up in a big way (Oduro and Alexander).
The new guys
While Piatti has garnered most of the credit for the team’s early success, I think we should take a good look at the contributions from the team’s 2 new arrivals. Whereas last year’s batch of newcomers took a while to really settle into their new surroundings, Harry Shipp and Lucas Ontivero have made their transition look seamless. Maybe most impressive is how good Ontivero has looked. Don’t get me wrong, Shipp has been as important if not more so to the team’s success, but the transition for Shipp, coming from an MLS squad, being a young veteran in the league, you’d expect him to fit in relatively quickly.
Ontivero, on the other hand, has bounced around the globe, shining in relative obscurity in Argentina before struggling for minutes with Galatasaray. All to say that, it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to think that his first few months with IMFC club would be a bit of an adventure, and not in a good way. Through two games however, the Argentinian has completely surpassed all my expectations, playing like a seasoned vet.
What has impressed me the most with Ontivero so far has been his intelligence with and without the ball. Considering his talent and youth, you’d expect a mixture of good and bad habits on the ball. To be honest, I was expecting more bad than good, considering the minimal amount of time he’s had to practice with his new teammates. That he’s already created so much chemistry with the likes of Piatti and Oduro is extremely impressive.
His link up play thus far has been outstanding. Against New York, I had Ontivero completing at least three key passes that resulted in grade "A" scoring chances, and both of the shots he took either hit the post or missed just high. I like that he rarely wasted possession when he passed the ball or when he shot it. Despite his age and relative inexperience, he doesn’t seem to be a "do or die" type player, meaning that he plays under control.
If you read my articles last year, you’d recall that I talked all the time about how important wing play can be to a team, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint. If a player is constantly losing the ball and conversely creating counter attacks for the opposition, he is potentially negating the positive plays he makes with the ball in the final third.
IMFC have gone through a number of wingers over the years like this, players I’d call "minus players" because they’re creating more bad than good. For stretches of last season, even Piatti was a minus player in my books. Though he created a lot of offensive opportunities for his team, there were games where he created more for the opposition with his turnovers.
So coming back to Ontivero, and Shipp for that matter, what makes them so special thus far is their plus/minus rating if you will. As far as I can remember from these first two games, IMFC have given up zero counter attack opportunities, attacks where the Impact defence were caught flat footed or undermanned. A lot of that has to do with both Ontivero and Shipp’s positive play going forward. They’re players who are as smart as they're talented, and proof that good offence can help avoid bad defence.
Attacking with a purpose
Montréal has been excellent over these first two games because of how composed and self-assured the've looked going forward. There were times last year where the Impact looked like they were playing safe, playing for a 0-0 draw. When you play like that, your passes tend to be tentative and you don’t play with any aggression or confidence.
Everything starts from good midfield play, and I think Eric Alexander deserves a lot of credit for that. I especially liked his game against New York, where I saw a player working hard to keep possession and aggressively trying to regain it. Alexander started many attacks for the Impact but more importantly perhaps, he kept a lot of attacks alive by holding onto possession. Like Ontivero (and most players on IMFC) he rarely coughed the ball up in a bad spot, and on the one occasion he did, he worked hard to make up for his mistake and break up a potential counter.
Mallace had a slower start to the game, but Alexander’s work rate seemed to be infectious, because by the end of the game Mallace was just as active breaking up attacks and winning back possession.
When you have two guys playing with such a high motor in defensive midfield, it’s no wonder Montréal’s attack kept coming at New York in waves.
Once the ball did start moving downfield, I was taken aback by how little time the team wasted in putting pressure on their opponents’ backline. Maybe this has always been part of Biello’s tactics, but it’s never been this successful.
In both games there was a noticeable trend which saw an Impact attacker hightail it into open space after a turnover or a quick transition, and it resulted in a high volume of a successful counter attacks or offensive breakouts. In the game against New York alone, I counted 9 such plays that came off effectively, a remarkable number in my opinion.
Maybe Biello and even Klopas always wanted to play like this, and I can point to games last season where this style worked quite well. But this year, Biello is clearly playing with a stacked deck. The quality of passing and movement has been elevated to such a high level that I could almost argue Klopas would have looked just as good as his replacement.
After two games then, a slow clap goes to IMFC’s scouting and technical staff, for pulling off a major coup with the additions of Shipp and Ontivero. It remains to be seen if the team can keep up this high quality of play, but for now, they deserve all the credit in the world.