Montreal Scouting Report: Breaking Through

A look at the Montreal Impact team that has never been great, but that's beaten Seattle every time they've met.

MLS is becoming more and more of a tactically interesting league. I didn't watch the league closely before Seattle's entrance in 2009, but my impression at the time was that most teams were carbon copy 4-4-2s trying to lump the ball in from the wings, or occasionally were built around a central playmaker like Valderrama or Schelotto. Maybe that's unfair. . again, I wasn't watching closely. But there's certainly a diversity of tactical setups now — from RSL's now venerable diamond built on the Beckerman-Morales axis, to Kansas City's full field pressure and counterattack, to San Jose's full Stoke-ification, to Caleb Porter's midfield-obsessed tiki-taka in Portland. To be fair, the strategy of putting a bunch of talented players on the field and then figuring it out also has a pretty good pedigree, as both Seattle and Los Angeles have shown in long runs of consecutive winning seasons. But overall I think we're seeing a pleasant diversity of tactics. And under Marco Schällibaum last season, Montreal certainly had a unique approach.

Tactical setups don't always leave obvious traces in statistical data. Sometimes you have to tease it out of turnover or tackle or possession data, and sometimes you just have to forget it and enjoy the show. And sometimes it is obvious:

Through-Balls Per Game, 2013
Rank Team TB/G
1 Montreal Impact 4.12
2 Columbus Crew 2.91
3 LA Galaxy 2.79
4 Portland Timbers 2.59
5 New York Red Bulls 2.41

and

Chipped Passes Per Game, 2013
Rank Team CP/G
1 Montreal Impact 47.88
2 Sporting KC 43.29
3 Columbus Crew 40.26
4 San Jose Earthquakes 37.03
5 DC United 35.47

and

Offside, 2013
Rank Player Team Offside Count
1 Marco Di Vaio MTL 78
2 Eddie Johnson SEA 42
3 Deshorn Brown COL 30

and

Goals via Through Balls, 2013
Rank Player Team G
1 Marco Di Vaio MTL 7
t2 Robbie Keane LAG 3
t2 Landon Donovan LAG 3
t2 Dominic Oduro CLB 3
t2 Johnny Steele NY 3

I'll have a post up some time soon that includes an examination of the power of the through ball. Of all the assist types Opta tracks, it leads to by far the highest strike rate from the resulting shots. It turns out that if you leave the defense for dead the shooter has an easier time of it. Seattle fans can certainly appreciate that after seeing Jermain Defoe's MLS debut goal off a through ball last week. And last season, Montreal leveraged that fact into a rather slavish devotion to getting lone forward Marco Di Vaio pushed up against the defense and running onto through balls and chipped passes over the defense. Often he was offside. . absurdly, brazenly often. But when he wasn't, he was through onto goal, and that was bad news for the opponent.

Key Players
Patrice Bernier Critical two-way player for the team who can take and hold possession in the midfield and then spray long passes forward to spring attacks.
Justin Mapp In the absence of Di Vaio, probably Montreal's most important attacking player. He'll attack the channels from the wings.
Hassoun Camara Came up with the team from NASL and established himself as the team's most important defender with the ball at his feet.

What we don't know at this point is how interested new head coach Frank Klopas is in continuing that style of play. Through two games they do not currently lead the league in through balls or chipped passes (I'll leave the 2014 leaders as a surprise at the end of the post). But that may as much be about missing the designated target for those balls. After a pretty disgraceful showing in their playoff game against Houston, Di Vaio was suspended for the first three games of this season. Without him they've relied on one-time #1 overall draft pick Andrew Wenger, who last year scored 1 goal in a few substitute minutes backing up Di Vaio. He's already matched that total — but in a very un-Di-Vaio like way — heading in a cross in their season opening loss to Dallas.

And he's expected to start again start this weekend in the final game of Di Vaio's suspension, so we'll wait one more week to find out whether Montreal will switch back to their through-ball fest with the Italian back at his post. Without him on the field, the Impact's danger comes through their midfielders, particularly Felipe (who will push far into the attack), Justin Mapp (who will cut in from the wings), and Patrice Bernier (who will distribute from deep in the midfield).

The Sounders have suspension issues of their own, with the confirmation that Clint Dempsey will be suspended for his cheeky sack-tap or inadvertent swipe or whatever. That once again opens up the question of what happens at the rather important attacking midfield area of Seattle's amoeba. In week one in the same situation they reverted to an empty bucket with Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso in the middle and Marco Pappa and Lamar Neagle on the wings behind Obafemi Martins and Kenny Cooper.

Gameday
Weather

But even though Seattle won that game, they weren't very convincing doing it (until Dempsey joined the game as a sub) and there are questions with that lineup, both for fitness and other reasons. Evans left last week's game early with an injury. If he can't go the central midfield pairing with Alonso may go to veteran Gonzalo Pineda, who looked good as a sub last week, but under little pressure. In the other direction, Leo Gonzalez may be available to make his season debut in place of Dylan Remick, who's looked bright but not as defensively stout as the Costa Rican.

And for non-injury reasons, I wouldn't be terribly surprised to see any of Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa, or Djimi Traore swapped out. All three have had questionable performances in previous games, and a road game on bad turf might be a convenient excuse to give some playing time to Jalil Anibaba, Sean Okoli, or Tristan Bowen. Especially against a team that still looks pretty committed to penetrating balls, the speed of Anibaba might be a better fit.

But our greatest weapon might be the fact that Montreal has never played against Osvaldo Alonso before. Yes, despite being in the league for their third year, the Impact have never faced down a Honey Badger. For both of our previous games — both losses, probably not coincidentally — Alonso was suspended. I'm sure he's eager to introduce himself, and for that I pity them.

Oh, and here's that 2014 through ball data I promised:

Through-Balls Per Game, 2014
Rank Team TB/G
1 Seattle Sounders 4.00
t2 Philadelphia Union 3.00
t2 Houston Dynamo 3.00
Chipped Passes Per Game, 2014
Rank Team CP/G
1 Chivas USA 44.50
2 Seattle Sounders 41.50
3 New York Red Bulls 40.50
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