Different tournament, same show.
Montreal Impact provided familiar fare during their recent sojourn in Florida. There was good and bad in roughly equal measure but for sure regular fans would have no problem identifying the Bleu/Blanc/Noir from its performances.
The positives were three points towards the regular season tally, and the fact that they emerged successfully, if narrowly, from the group into the last sixteen.
But there were horrible lacklustre performances against New England and Orlando, and an evening where they just couldn’t help leaking goals to the old enemy, Toronto FC, even if they did manage to respond with a few of their own.
The Impact remains a below average MLS club. How else can you explain a regular season playing record of won 97, drawn 57 and lost 123 all time in MLS, in which they have made the play-offs only three times from a possible eight?
In only two of those seasons have they returned a positive goal difference and won (slightly) more matches than they lost.
So why is the expectancy level so high? It can’t be because the team’s been strengthened. Luis Binks and Romell Quioto may be positive additions, but how do you quantify that against the loss of Ignacio Piatti?
It can’t be down to having an experienced, proven, coach. Thierry Henry despite his vast experience gleaned throughout a wonderful playing career is still cutting his teeth.
It can’t be down to recruiting a third DP. That’s never happened.
It can’t be that the Impact has a successful youth development programme (at least not yet). The only Impact Academy graduate that’s made more than 30 MLS starts for the club is Wandrille Lefebrve.
It can’t be that there’s wads of cash and a clean page from which to start building. Not the case either.
So maybe we can start by lowering the expectancy level?
On a positive side there appears to be steady, or at least slow, signs of stability and progress, but changes in fortune are not likely to happen overnight. It will take time.
With Olivier Renard in place there’s a chance for stability to exist, continuation and growth, provided he replicates his relative successes as a Sporting Director in Europe. Previously the Impact has gone from coach to coach, invariably short-term appointments, each one bringing his own ideas. With no apparent overall direction (identity?), changes along the road have been all too frequent.
But back on point... Orlando...
The fact is that most teams looked better than Montreal. Whether or not that had something to do with the three Canadian outfits struggling with fitness due to a later return to training than their US counterparts, remains to be seen. But for sure Montreal looked off the pace in three games against US opposition, apart from a 35 minute period against DC United (arguably the weakest team they faced) in which they possessed the ball and dictated the pace admirably. It didn’t last however.
There is a lot of work to be done. Clearly Thierry Henry recognizes this as much as he does the need for reinforcements. Of course he hasn’t mentioned squad-strength publicly, but reading through the lines, there’s been enough to suggest the right conversations may be happening where it matters. We shall see.
The coach meanwhile needs to understand his raw material, and how he wants to play. Finding players within the squad currently that meet with his ideals of possessing the ball and dictating tempo is no easy task as any Impact-watcher over the past few seasons would attest.
Right now, it’s about cutting the coat according to your cloth. The ideals can be worked towards, but momentarily the coach needs to find an effective way to win football matches with what he has available. Available evidence suggests the successful blueprint is still a ways off. Two wins from nine (4 defeats) back that up.
In Thierry Henry’s defence, he’s not had long, and the time afforded so far has been punctuated by lockdown. Some would even argue lockdown came as the team was beginning to show momentum.
But there have been strange decisions around team selection. Selecting Samuel Piette in a quasi right wing-back role followed in the next match by Shamit Shome before opting in the third game for the more obvious Brault-Guillard is one example. So is the persistence in having Samuel Piette playing further forward than Victor Wanyama.
You wonder if Piette and Wanyama can exist together in the same eleven. Something else for the coach to ponder.
Wanyama struggled in the game against Orlando. He wasn't alone, of course, but there was enough to suggest the reason why he doesn’t play the more advanced role between he and the Repentigny man is down to ‘legs’. At 31 and given the wear and tear of football on his body, does he still have the legs for it?
He has many other qualities of course, but as the Montreal team cries out for creativity a holding midfielder as a designated-player possibly shouldn’t have been on the shopping list.
All that can change as the season, if we are to have one, progresses. We must wait and see where Wanyama is most effective for the Impact.
Another talent, Bojan looks lost, unsupported and unsure. Given this player’s extravagant abilities, fans expect more, and rightly so. But Bojan is not your leader. Surrounded by talented players he will perform, but all we are seeing up top is a lack of cohesion and of course, service. Again the coaching staff must find a way to get the best from the Spaniard.
Quioto is a breath of fresh air, Binks has impressed everyone with his general play and maturity, and Fanni is Fanni, but he’s 38. As captain, Jukka Raitala needs to be starting. No matter what Corrales provides going forward, the fundamental responsibility remains an ability to defend (unless maybe if IMFC possesses the ball more). The Finn is superior in this respect. He’s come in for criticism for his performances in Orlando. Fair enough, but some of it has been harsh.
The form of Saphir Taider is a worry. Given domestic circumstances, his mind may be elsewhere currently, but it’s affecting his game and he looks far from the player he can be. Others on the sidelines while not more effective than a fully-functioning Taider, must be given their chance. Although not exactly the same type of player as Taider, Maciel impressed in his lone appearance, yet we never seen him again.
What of Lassi Lappalainen? There were reports of fitness lacking, but should we not have seen more of the young Finn? He couldn’t have done worse than Okwonkwo.
Thierry Henry is as right to talk about balance as he is about fighting spirit. The balance throughout the team is off. The unit never looks like creating much or putting sides under sustained pressure, and when they do have players committed to attack, it remains highly susceptible to the counter.
The team is crying out for a regular, consistent goalscorer, but even for a proven striker to effectively produce, he needs service. Would a Josef Martinez or a Diego Rossi get twenty goals a season playing for the Impact, as they would for their current respective clubs. I doubt it.
They are more likely to be isolated and become frustrated. Behind the striking role, team balance can be improved but is unlikely to be fixed properly without additions to the squad.
What we saw in Florida, indeed what we have seen so far this season, suggests the Impact will maintain traditional trends. We don’t know at this stage how the reminder of the season will be structured, but right now 2020 looks like the beginning of a transition for the Impact, where they perhaps flirt with play-off qualification but fall short once again.
I hope I’m wrong about the play-offs, but if the transition gains momentum, missing out on ‘post-season’ in this awkwardly, unbalanced and staggered season, will have been worth it.