Hello there, stranger. It’s been a while. Miss me? Don’t answer right away, let’s let the moment linger a little… Okay, this is getting awkward, let’s talk about soccer, yeah?
Here we are in the dog days of summer, and your Montréal Impact are sitting in the somewhat respectable position of 4th in the Eastern Conference, with a record of 6 wins, 5 losses and a whopping 8 draws. It’s fair to say that IMFC have been a little all over the map this year as far as consistency is concerned. Some games their offence looks unstoppable, other games non-existent. Some games the defence has looked steady, other games, not so much. At the end of the day, their somewhat underwhelming point total through 19 games (26) is fairly indicative of how they’ve looked this season.
So, what do you want first, the good news or the bad news? What, surprise you? Ok, but brace yourself, because this may come as a bit of a shock…
The defence’s biggest problem is…
The centrebacks. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, the position Laurent Ciman plays. Yes, that one. What? Yes, yes, I know I complained about the fullbacks all year. Was I wrong? Yes and no. Fullbacks are still an issue, but not as much as the centrebacks. Calm down, I still really like Ciman. Yes, I know he played for Belgium. Yes, yes I know Victor Cabrera had a great game versus Real Salt Lake. I’m not crazy, let me explain!
To put it bluntly, Montréal has been dreadful at set piece defence for a while now, and no, that is not completely the fault of bad CB play. Still, the central defenders are supposed to set the tone from a physical standpoint in the box. They are supposed to be the bullies in the box, not the ones getting bullied, but too many times we have seen the latter this season.
This came to a head (literally) in the first half of their 1-1 draw versus the Portland Timbers last Wednesday. I can barely remember a more pathetic attempt at defending a corner in recent memory. While at first glance it appears as though goaltender Evan Bush is too slow to anticipate the ball’s flight to get a punch on it, it’s really the defenders in front of him who are to blame. Bush attempts to make a play on the ball but his teammates in front of him are hemmed in like caged chickens, outmuscled by the more physical and active Timbers players.
The goal is eventually scored by probably the most ineffectual player on the field, Jack McInerney. He doesn’t score because he’s out-jumped or outsmarted the Impact backline. He’s just waited and taken advantage of IMFC’s complete collapse under pressure.
In that game, there’s one specific reason why Montréal rarely worried the Timbers' goal on their set pieces attempts, while conceding a scoring chance on almost every one of Portland’s attempts: physicality. Montréal's defence has simply done a horrid job of boxing out attackers in the box, and it has seen them concede far too many goals this season.
The inability to consistently defend set pieces is not all on the central defenders. At the end of the day it’s a collaborative effort, and one has to wonder how much work the team is doing to rectify this problem. Was the exit of defensive coach Enzo Concina a bigger loss than we thought? It’s hard to know what goes on in practices, but everything points to there being less grit in this year’s edition of the Montréal Impact.
Midfield: Consistently inconsistent
In a word, the Montréal Impact’s midfield this year has been inconsistent. While there have been great performances by Ignacio Piatti, and flashes of brilliance from the likes of Lucas Ontivero, overall, the Impact have failed to string together consistent efforts in the middle of the pitch.
It’s easy to single out the defensive issues that Montréal have in midfield, but the real worry for me comes in ball distribution and just shear confidence on the ball.
Players such as Eric Alexander, Kyle Bekker, Harrison Shipp, and to a lesser extent Patrice Bernier and Marco Donadel, have struggled to find the right balance between quick, aggressive play and calmness on the ball.
The worst of the bunch I’d say has been Kyle Bekker. Because of a slew of injuries, the Toronto-native has been given every opportunity to take the ball and run with it in central midfield, but he’s proven far too shy a player. You’d think a player who’s been given the reins in central midfield would provide a little more self-assuredness on the ball, but mostly what we’ve seen from Bekker this year is fear, a player worried about making a mistake.
Harry Shipp has understandably come out of his shell a bit after scoring goals in back to back games, but up until that point he had shown a similar, fearful side to his game, always settling for the safe, simple pass.
On the other side of the coin, Ignacio Piatti has been the team’s star, and by a mile. His recent play especially has made me a believer that he can win the league’s MVP. I don’t know if Biello finally got through to the Argentinian maestro, but suddenly the man who would never pass is passing, and passing with a purpose. He seems to have fully bought in to what the Impact are doing in attack, and with the team’s defensive woes, it really could not have a come at a better time.
Forwards: Very little to complain about
While I’ve spent a lot of virtual ink this year talking about defenders and midfielders and what they’re doing right or wrong, I've somewhat ignored the forwards and strikers. My excuse is this: When you’re doing a lot of things right, there’s seemingly a lot less to talk about.
Save a few off performances, like the one we saw Sunday against NYCFC, Dominic Oduro has been nothing short of a revelation this year. I have no idea what’s gotten into Freaky Fast, but a light bulb of epic proportions has clearly gone off in this kid’s brain. Gone are the horrible first touches. Gone are the dribbling expeditions where he would trip over his own feet. Gone are the ridiculous off balance shots when 3 teammates were wide open.
Instead, Oduro has been a player under complete control this year, almost too much so at times. The ESPN announcer was right for calling out Oduro for not taking on defenders with his speed on Sunday, but in a way, that’s the new Oduro that few people have seen before. The Ghanaian leads the Impact in assists with 5, and they’re not your garden-variety layoff balls, they’re REAL assists. He’s also added 4 goals, many of which have been game-winners or at worst, game-changers. Nacho Piatti has undoubtedly been the team’s best player, but the fact that Oduro has arguably been a close second is impressive, especially when you consider the gap in talent between the two players.
With Didier Drogba out, a player like Oduro has had to step up, and so too has a young man who hails from the soccer hotbed that is Belize (cough)… Mikey Salazar!
You gotta love this kid, you really do. What he lacks in quality he makes up in sheer determination and charisma on the pitch. He’s earned his minutes through and through this season, thanks in due part to a willingness to play both sides of the ball with equal vim and vigour. The skill is there, too, as seen with his two-goal performance earlier this month in one of his rare starts. With a little bit of seasoning and refinement, the Impact could have a good one on their hands.
The only striker who might be underperforming is the great one himself, Didier Drogba, but surely I'm nitpicking. It’s been a stop-start season for the Ivorian goal-machine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the team’s leading scorer by the end of the season. He’s still as dangerous as ever from set piece situations, and it’s probably just a matter of time before he finds a run of form.
Team outlook going forward: Progress or collapse?
With the second half of the season now underway, I admit I’m having a hard time gauging what this team will look like going forward. The team has suffered a steady diet of injuries all season long, making it difficult for a real sense of chemistry to develop among the players. The team’s best moments still appear to hearken back to those salad days in March, where everyone was on the same page and healthy. Fast forward 4 months, and you can’t really say that the team has improved in any way, and if anything, may have regressed. Certain individual players have had standout seasons, but the defence has never been poorer, and the cohesion between defence and offence has not been there on a consistent basis.
The acquisition of fullback Amadou Dia for fan favorite Cameron Porter should be helpful, but there needs to be a couple of tough decisions made in regards to who starts in the back four. Wandrille Lefèvre and Victor Cabrera have simply not been good enough this year, and one wonders if it’s not time to try the more consistent Hassoun Camara in their stead next to Laurent Ciman when he returns.
This type of move should take nothing away from the team’s fullback play, as Ambroise Oyongo appears to be in his best form to date with the Impact, and my money is on Donny Toia returning to his 2014-15 form sooner than later.
Elsewhere, you’d assume the addition of Matteo Mancosu can’t hurt, though the jury is still out on whether he can play out wide. I mention this because the way Biello never subs out Drogba, I’d be hard-pressed to see the Italian ever play as an out-an-out striker unless Drogba gets injured.
Speaking of the jury still being out, I’m starting to have my doubts about Mauro Biello’s game management skills. I was not exactly impressed by his "throw the kitchen sink at them" approach in Sunday’s loss, where, despite being only a goal down and clearly controlling the run of play, Biello brought on both Venegas and Mancosu, two players with very little defensive acumen, to help level the score. With the midfield bereft of any defensive-first players, it was not long before NYCFC countered with a third goal, putting the contest out of reach.
Substitutions like that either make you believe that Biello has a lot more trust in his backline then he should, or that he doesn’t really have much of a plan when his team is playing from behind. Either way its just one game, but it should be interesting to see how Biello copes with what may be a tough road down the stretch.
Overall, I’m not too worried about IMFC ‘s playoff potential, but only because of the sheer talent they have at their disposal. They seem to lack a modicum of team identity, and many spots in the starting 11 are still up for grabs, a clear sign that there is work left to be done for Biello and Co. in the coming weeks.