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Impact Aim to Crush California Hoodoo

Opening Day optimism prevails despite poor past record in California.

MLS: Rowdies Suncoast Invitational-Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
Remi Garde, pictured here during pre-season in Florida, has his team well-prepared going into Saturday evening’s opening game in San Jose.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is almost over.

MLS 2019 is about to get underway. A player from either Philadelphia Union or Toronto FC will kick the first ball of the new season in earnest at 1pm EST, Saturday, as Union host The Reds in the opening game.

Montreal Impact of course, will be bringing the first day to a close at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, a venue they last visited on this same weekend two years ago. Come midnight in Montreal, the Impact will be hoping for an outcome somewhat better than the 0-1 defeat suffered last time.

A good pre-season down in Florida, W3 L0 D2 with a goal difference of 7-1 for, has given rise to optimism in Montreal ranks. Unlike this time last year there’s not been a huge off-season turnover in player personnel, and while Remi Garde would have preferred not to have lost Alejandro Silva, player acquisition has been encouraging. Maxi Urruti arrived from FC Dallas, Harry Novillo from Malaysian football, Zachary Brault-Guillard from Olympique Lyonnais and Orji Okwonkwo came on-loan from Bologna.

The availability of Zakaria Diallo, after a year on the sidelines, is also akin to getting a new player, and there are high hopes for youngster Mathieu Choiniere, who set tongues wagging after his thunderbolt volley last week against DC United. Clement Bayiha, like Choiniere developed by the club, also featured in pre-season and should add cover on the right side.

MLS: Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC
Zakaria Diallo’s return to fitness is like signing a new player ....
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Remi Garde is very close to knowing his best team although tactical considerations will always affect team selection for any given match. Jukka Raitala has not been fit during pre-season, so there’s some conjecture around who will partner Zakaria Diallo in central defense on Saturday evening. But at least now there are viable options.

Another who has given the coach something to think about for the opening line-up is Choiniere. The youngster’s explosive cameo last weekend forces himself into Garde’s thoughts. The coach must now decide whether to go for the bright young thing, bubbling with attacking confidence, or the safer, more conservative, option that Michael Azira provides. Given the Impact’s traditional susceptibility to travel sickness, he is likely to start with Azira on Saturday night, but don’t be surprised to see Choiniere emerge from the sidelines, particularly if matters on the field are not going to plan.

In San Jose, all eyes are on new coach Matias Almeyda, the former Argentinian international, who steered Guadalajara to continental success in 2018. San Jose with only 4 wins and 9 draws in 34 MLS matches, had the worst record in the country last season, and Quakes fans are hoping for minor miracles from a coach with a growing reputation.

Almeyda has managed to introduce three players rated key to his plans; young Peruvian international left-back, Marcos Lopez (Sporting Cristal), Cristian Espinoza, a 23-year-old Argentinian winger who comes on loan from La Liga side, Villareal and Judson (Tombense), a defensive midfielder from Brazil.

He still has at his disposal, Chris Wondolowski of course. Now 36, the former US international will be aiming to equal Landon Donovan’s MLS-record of 145 goals when he lines out against Montreal. Three of Wondolowski’s total were plundered against the Stade Saputo outfit across 7 previous meetings.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at San Jose Earthquakes
Chris Wondolowski heads goal number 144 past Luis Robles of New York Red Bulls, last October.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For what it’s worth, pre-season threw up mixed results for the Quakes, who lost 0-3 to USL affiliate Reno 1868, before winning 3-0 over Los Angeles FC in a behind closed doors friendly. They concluded their pre-season warm-up last weekend, coming from 2-down at home to Seattle Sounders, to tie 2-2. Each of San Jose’s goals were penalties converted by Wondoloski. He also registered in the victory over LA.

The opening day hasn't often been good to Montreal, which has won twice, at Seattle and at Vancouver, and lost on five other occasions. Visits to California have proven even less fruitful. In 9 competitive fixtures in the sunshine state, they have yet to record victory.

But Montreal fans know all too well how difficult it is to come off a poor season, and go into the next with a new marquee coach and changes in playing staff. The confidence in the Canadian camp also appears high, buoyed last weekend by the dismantling of a strong but seemingly less well-prepared DC United.

Despite having been constantly plagued by poor road form since emerging as an MLS club in 2012, the Impact simply know that with six away games coming up on the trot to start the season, they simply need to be recording some victories down that initial stretch.

Playing away to San Jose is probably the most winnable of the six, and while a draw won’t be disastrous, Remi Garde will be disappointed should his side not break their California duck on Saturday night.

San Jose Earthquakes (expected) - Vega - Lima, Kashia, Cummings, Lopez - Judson, Godoy, Eriksson, Espinoza - Vako, Wondolowski.

Montreal Impact (expected) - Bush, Sagna, Cabrera, Diallo, Lovitz - Piatti, Taider, Azira, Piatti - Novillo, Urrutia.

Referee - Joseph Dickerson.

This will only be California-based Mr Dickerson’s 9th MLS assignment. He has refereed Montreal Impact once previously, coincidentally in their 2-0 victory over San Jose earthquakes at Stade Saputo in July last year. Mr Dickerson is 31.