Scouting Report: Bienvenue à la Saison

Al Messerschmidt

A quick look at the French-speaking Swiss-coached team built around geriatric Italians.

At nearly the exact moment that Seattle allayed many fears about their reconstructed lineup by earning the 2013 Desert Diamond Cup with a win over Real Salt Lake, 2000 miles to the east the Montreal Impact defeated the Columbus Crew to win the 2013 Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. You can argue about whether a 4-year-old tournament deserves to be called a classic, but regardless the Impact are its champions. And now these two early risers — these titans of the preseason — will face each other in the kickoff to the 2013 season. Which will be a home regular season opener for Seattle — the fifth consecutive year that's happened. So that's nice.

Montreal's inaugural 2012 season was a typical expansion year — some ups, more downs, and a team that took a while to find an identity. Fortunately for them, once they settled on their "A Bunch of Experienced Italians" identity the results started coming and through August they threatened to climb into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But a fatal end of season swoon resulted in only 3 goals scored and no wins in their final 6 matches, which likely cost coach Jesse Marsch his job. Still, they finished only a point behind the Whitecaps — who made the playoffs in the West — so there's a promising foundation on which to build.

Marsch was replaced by the Swiss manager Marco Schällibaum, who will make the most recent attempt by a European manager to figure out MLS. I'm sure Ruud Gullit, Hans Backe, and Aron Winter will be watching his progress closely. He hasn't shied away from the Impact's developing European flavor, bringing in Italian Andrea Pisanu in January to join Serie A veterans Marco Di Vaio, Matteo Ferrari, and Alessandro Nesta.

With a new manager in place, we can only mine the preseason to get an idea of the team's tactical direction. Based on their play in the WDWPSC, it's focused on a lot of width and possession. With a lone forward in Di Vaio, they're playing a 4-5-1 of some flavor (4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, whatever you want to call it). That fifth midfielder spreads the flank midfielders right to the touchlines. That's combined with a clearly intentional effort to get the fullbacks split wide to create even more space.

That width avoids midfield congestion and creates gaping passing lanes that help the team maintain easy possession through the midfield. Against Columbus in the final I'd guess they had near 70% possession in the first half. That had the benefit not only of keeping the ball, but of running the Crew players ragged as they chased back and forth across the field. Their possession is also helped by the ferocious pressure they put on the ball even in the opponent's end — thanks in large part to Di Vaio's work rate — which forces poor passes and recycles possession back to their midfield, reminiscent of Sporting Kansas City's offensive ball pressure.

Their major question is whether they can turn that possession into offense. Despite being a lone forward, Di Vaio is far from a target man. He has little, if any, presence in the air. Instead he and the rest of the team relies on quick passes and through balls to get behind the defense and attack on the ground. On free kicks they'll target a pack of players at the top of the box hoping the ball will drop from a shot, rather than trying to head it directly in. Their only goal in their 1-0 win over Columbus came on a corner (their only corner of the match, I believe, though I didn't play close attention), when the ball fell at the top of the box to Justin Mapp, who poked a ball in through a crowd in front of the Crew net Troy Perkins.

And their run into the final looked good on paper, but was deceptive. Their first round 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City was a bit fortunate and really decided the group. In the next game they trounced lower division Tamp Bay Rowdies, who were trounced by everyone and scored their only goal of the tournament on a penalty in that match. Then they drew DC United 1-1 in the third match thanks to a completely ridiculous looping bicycle kick from Pisanu. So there remain offensive questions to be answered.

Their other issue is fitness. Di Vaio has a motor, but he's 36. As is Nesta. Ferrari and Patrice Bernier are 33. Davy Arnaud is 32. After dominating possession in the final against Columbus and seemingly running the Crew into the ground, it was actually the Impact who faded in the second half. Sure, they had a lead and were paying a little more defensively, but they were clearly gassed and unable to string together more than a few passes in the final 10 minutes.

That aged defense is a particular issue for a team that likes to spread across the field as much as they do. While that gives them nice gaps for passing lanes, it also creates huge holes for a team to counterattack through. The Crew weren't able to take advantage of it with Dominic Oduro out on the wing, but a team with any speed up the middle and the ability to counter quickly could blow through those gaps. And that's the sort of thing that Eddie Johnson might have a hankering to try.

For Seattle, latent suspensions from the unpleasant end to last season plus a few injuries plus the inability to fill the INSERT LA LIGA STRIKER HERE slot means Seattle won't be at full strength. Even so, a team that can throw Johnson, Mauro Rosales, Steve Zakuani, and Mario Martinez at you isn't too hurting for offense. And even the nominal sub, David Estrada, scored a hat trick the last time he played in a season opener.

In defense, things are a little shakier. Adam Johansson will be a game-time decision, and if the decision is 'no' we'll probably be starting rookie DeAndre Yedlin at right back, in part because usual backup Zach Scott could be starting in central defense for the injured Patrick Ianni. I can imagine a world where it's Scott at right back and newly signed Djimi Traore in center, but I'm not sure that's a significant improvement.

In front of them Alonso will be out suspended, and that's never been good news for Seattle. But this might be a season in which we can weather a Honey Badger absence better than usual, with another year of experience behind Servando Carrasco and Andy Rose and some minutes available from one-time Best Defensive Midfielder In MLS Shalrie Joseph.

This will be Montreal's first game in Seattle, and only their second against the team. The first was Seattle's WTF 4-1 loss in Montreal last season which punctuated a pretty awful midseason run for the Sounders. I expect this one to go much better. It will be interesting to see whether the Impact can maintain a possession game on the turf in front of a raucous crowd. If they try and start giving the ball up in midfield, Johnson will have a chance to run rampant on the counter. If they give up possession and try to bunker and counter, scoring chances will be few and far between. In the end I expect the Sounders to continue their tradition of opening day victories (over teams that don't have Juninho on them).

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