It’s not quite Paris, London, New York, but after San Jose, Houston and Orlando, the Montreal Impact entourage winds up this Saturday in Kansas City, the fourth instalment of an initial six-leg road-trip intro to the new season.
And they won’t be splashing into the City of Fountains without a fair level of optimism.
Children’s Mercy Park, a traditionally difficult place to get points at, holds happy memories from earlier Impact visits. Two of their first three MLS encounters in Missouri ended in victory. But balanced against that, Montreal has not won on their last three trips there.
Saturday will provide the latest barometer of the Impact’s progress. Great that they’ve already registered 66% of the away wins accumulated over the whole of 2018, but while commendable, those victories did come against two sides they should expect to beat anyway.
Playing in their favour is their opponent’s distraction that is the CONCACAF Champions’ League (they have a huge semi-final v CF Monterrey, Thursday). We’ve all seen in the past how a successful run in the continental competition can affect domestic progress, although this writer would suggest the Sporting organization’s approach is a lot more grounded than what we saw from Impact’s provincial next-door neighbours last year.
Make no mistake, Saturday is a major deal, it’s a huge challenge to come back from KC with three points, but returning undefeated is a more than acceptable outcome, and one which will keep squad confidence brimming.
You feel something has to give though. Montreal has not been shut-out on the road this season; Sporting has not conceded in three home games (two in CCL play).
It’s also one of those funny weekends where players from both sides return to their clubs from international duty, adding to the unpredictability.
Orji Okwonko and Saphir Taider are each returning from Africa, Lovitz, Piette and Brault-Guillard from closer to home, and Remi Garde is not taking things for granted.
“In Saphir’s case with a return from Africa which is very long, in Daniel’s case it’s less far, but beyond physical fatigue is emotional fatigue.”
“We know that playing multiple games in a week is complicated. My habit is to reunite on Thursday and see the state of the squad and the ones that are physically and psychologically in shape.”
SKC are in the same boat with Johnny Russell returning from a poor international break for his country, in which the winger scored his first Scotland goal. I suspect though, Hungarians, Krisztian Nemeth and former Honved centre-back, Botond Barath will have floated back to the US on the back of their country’s surprise 2-1 success over World Cup finalists Croatia, who included Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Vida and Lovren.
On the right side of SKC’s defence, Barath is likely to duel with Nacho Piatti come 3pm Saturday, in what could be the key battle of the game. That is if Montreal’s talisman makes the squad. The Argentine is rated doubtful, not having trained since his two-goal salvo influenced victory in Florida. Worryingly for Montreal, Remi Garde rates him “Highly doubtful.”
Definitely out however, is the suspended Zakaria Diallo, and coach Garde must decide between Finnish international Jukka Raitala and Frenchman Rudy Camacho to provide Victor Cabrera with a partner.
“I know that there will be one or two disappointments after my decision, but I am still reflecting. The level is so close that the decision is not a simple one,” Garde said. “I said it already, I think that the season will be long and we will need everyone. I hope that it won’t hold consequences for the rest of everyone’s season.”
Okwonko, the Nigerian, despite being a scorer against Orlando, may be a casualty should Garde retain concerns about fatigue. If so, Harry Novillo, a further two weeks on from hamstring troubles, would be the beneficiary.
Garde’s counterpart, Peter Vermes has talked up Montreal’s French coach’s influence and organization, and how the Impact has improved after the difficult start to last season. Vermes’ team likes to possess the ball and he’s wary of Montreal’s ability to counter-attack. The 0-2 defeat at Stade Saputo last season remains fresh in the memory.
“They’re a good team. We know how well they can play on the counter, and they’re well-organised. The most difficult thing about soccer is time. No-one wants to give you time. But when you look at what’s happened with Montreal, Remi has been given time and you can see that the players there, are buying into his methods.”
The match is a hard one to call, despite Sporting KC being the clear “bookie” favourite at 3/5. Montreal are on offer at 19/5. Reality brackets the sides much closer, particularly given Impact’s improving comfort away from home, and SKC’s continental commitments.
But that’s all predicated on Montreal’s #10 being included on the team-sheet. Should it not appear, his team’s chances, while far from being extinguished, will be diminished.
Sporting KC - Melia - Zusi, Barath, Besler, Sinovic - Busio, Ilie, Gutierrez - Russell,nemeth, Gelo Fernandes.
Impact - Bush - Sanga, Raitala (or Camacho), Cabrera, Lovitz - Piette, Azira, Taider, Piatti - Novillo (or Okwonkwo), Urruti
Referee: Nima Saghafi
Assts: Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Kieso
VAR: Christina Uklel