There’s certainly plenty of cover across all midfield stations heading into 2020. It’s the strongest this department has ever been going into an MLS season. All of a sudden it seems, there are options, not only because of the depth available, but due to the flexibility of several players.
Central midfield picks itself with Piette and Taider nailed-on to claim the fulcrum spots, but it’s in the wide areas where competition for places will be keenest.
On the right flank, last season’s MVP, Orji Okwonkwo is in pole position to claim a place under challenge mainly from Romell Quioto, while a fit again Ignacio Piatti would be fully expected to assume the role he’s made his own, cutting in from the opposite wing, Or will he?
It really depends how the coaching staff thinks this one out. If they consider Lassi Lappalainen as the preferred wide left midfield/attacker, then Piatti may be set for a role forming a double spearhead with Bojan Krkic up front. Now there’s something to whet the appetite.
Then again, as we saw, particularly in the first-leg of last season’s Canadian Championship Final, the young Finn can also perform in a central striking role. There’s no reason of course why players cannot inter-change positions effectively during games, something that would have been considered a luxury in previous seasons, but no longer out of reach with the quality available in the current squad.
Lappalainen of course, along with fellow-countryman Jukka Raitala, will be missing for the month of June. They each have a certain obligation with their national team colleagues as Finland participates in a major finals tournament for the first time in its history.
Because of the sheer number of games early season and the missing Finns in June, the midfield’s depth will undoubtedly be tested. Thierry Henry is sure to apply some level of rotation to keep players fresh. Points must be collected in MLS as his team (hopefully) advance through Champions’ League soccer.
This ensures plenty of opportunity for the likes of Ballou-Tabla, Romell Quioto, the improving Shamit Shome, Mathieu Choiniere and perhaps Amar Sejdic to record significant minutes.
We didn’t see enough of Sejdic last season and at 22, this season needs to be his breakthrough year, despite appearing to be well down the pecking order presently. Ballou-Tabla needs a strong showing. The former starlet, who sailed off to Barcelona B in a dream move only to return, did not impress on a loan spell back in Montreal last season.
There is an obvious talent in there, but the player must add maturity to natural ability, both on and off the field. Impact fans remain optimistic, but these days there isn’t a great deal of certainty around Ballou-Tabla finally realizing the potential his early days promised to deliver.
For Shamit Shome, 2019 saw him established as a valuable member of the side. He probably enjoyed more opportunities than expected by staying fit when others in the squad suffered injuries. There was a purple patch with some good performances mid-season before his form dipped a little towards the end, not an unusual trend for a young player toiling in midfield for a struggling side.
I expect Shome to kick-on in 2020, although he may begin the year as understudy to Saphir Taider, now that the competition for places has hotted up. Shamit will remain a key member of the squad, and should earn a respectable number of starts, but perhaps not as many as last season.
Like Amar Sejdic, Mathieu Choiniere needs to have a solid year in 2020. He flattered to deceive when provided opportunities last season, but again assuming a creative, attacking role within a struggling team didn’t make things easy. We’ve all seen glimpses of what he’s capable of and at 21 (he will be when the season begins), still has time on his side, but he’ll be hoping to exert more influence when chances come his way in 2020.
Like Remi Garde, who never really got there, Thierry Henry wants to see his team possess the ball and dictate the tempo of games. With the options and talent now available in the middle of the park, and despite the lack of a true #10, he’s probably better equipped in this department than his predecessor to realize this aspiration.
If one concern emerges around the team’s engine-room, it’s the dearth of defensive or holding midfielders. Some may see this as a refreshing change from the past, however only really Samuel Piette in the squad can wear this hat. It could leave the side perilously exposed should the consistent Quebecer suffer injury, although this may be one major reason why Joel Waterman so interested the coaching staff. Sources suggest the former Cavalry man can also operate in front of the back-four.
Getting a fully fit Nacho Piatti back could be like signing a new player, such was his rarity in 2019.
Question marks remain however given all the speculation since last season, and fans must trust the Argentine’s professionalism will prevail somewhat more than it did at the post-mortem day last season.
Motivated, committed and fit, there’s no doubt he’s up there with the best MLS can offer. And if 2020 is to be his Montreal swan-song, my money’s on him pulling out all the stops to go out on a high.
But not if he’s unhappy. There’s no smoke without fire and it’s clear the Impact’s greatest-ever player had seriously considered returning to end his career in his homeland as the end of last season approached. Maybe he even expected it to happen. It certainly looked that way as he left the field during the last home game.
It will also be more difficult for him in Montreal with his wife and family back in Argentina.
The situation could stay fluid. Should the Impact manoeuvre towards a successful MLS season, Piatti may feel compelled to see out his contract. If things go less well however the smart money would be on an early return to South America.