Saturday at PPL Park will mark the first time in history that the Philadelphia Union do battle with the Montreal Impact. Jesse Marsch's Eastern Conference newcomers sport a 6-11-3 record this season, with 21 total points and 4-point lead on the Union in the standings.
Philadelphia is 4-3-2 all time against Canadian opposition, with 1 win, 1 loss, and 1 draw against Toronto and Vancouver this season.
Montreal is looking to break out of a bit of a slump. The Impact ended a three game losing streak last week with a 2-1 home win against Columbus.
There's been a rotating cast of characters in the Montreal attack this year, which one might expect from an expansion team. Most recently, newly signed DP Marco Di Vaio has been playing at the top of a 4-2-3-1 formation. The former Italy international is still looking for his first goal with the club.
Montreal's forward depth takes a hit from there. First round 2012 Super Draft selection Andrew Wenger is out with a hamstring strain. Sanna Nyassi is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Justin Braun was just traded to Real Salt Lake. And the team's other Italian forward, Bernardo Corradi, is out with an ACL tear.
Marsch is likely to choose from Lamar Neagle, Justin Mapp, Davy Arnaud, and Felipe Martins, as a midfield three behind Di Vaio. Those four players have combined for 9 goals and 12 assists this season.
Mapp, formerly with the Union, has been playing well for the Impact. Normally a winger, he had a good game as an experimental central midfielder in last week's 2-1 win over Columbus.
Assuming Marsch stays with the 4-2-3-1, we're likely to see Patrice Bernier and Collin Warner sit in front of the Montreal defense as a midfield pairing. Bernier actually leads the team with 5 goals and 5 assists.
With 36 goals conceded, Montreal statistically has the weakest backline in the league. That should change drastically when former AC Milan star Alessandro Nesta joins the starting lineup. The highly rated World Cup winner will continue his conditioning work this weekend and will not be making his MLS debut at PPL Park.
Marsch is also without his starting center back pairing. Matteo Ferrari is out with a quad strain and Nelson Rivas is out with an abdomen injury.
That leaves Hassoun Camara, and former Union defender Shavar Thomas as the likely pairing in central defense. Lancaster native Zarek Valentin is a shoe-in at right back, while Jeb Brovsky will slide in at left back. The Impact also recently signed 21-year-old Swiss defender Dennis Iapichino from FC Lugano. He's waiting for an International Transfer Certificate.
Former Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts made the move to Montreal in the off-season. The Jamaica international has not had the greatest season, but he's a capable 'keeper and brings a lot to the table when he's on his game.
Keys to the Game
Like any expansion club, there are growing pains that come with organizing a team under a new coach. Marsch has done a lot of tweaking this season, dealt with injuries and suspensions, and moved new signings in and out of the lineup. Montreal's depth is tested at this point in the season, but they do have quality players who are learning to work together.
The key is going after the Impact's weakened defense, which is missing some key parts. The Montreal defense has conceded 12 goals in the last 5 games. Philadelphia has scored 15 goals in the last 7 games. The Union will look to re-discover the scoring form that eluded them mid-week against Kansas City.
There is some familiarity between players on these clubs. While we haven't seen the likes of Di Vaio, Martins, Bernier, or Camara, there are 8 players in Montreal's starting XI that played for other MLS teams last year. That includes Mapp and Thomas, both of whom played in Philadelphia.
A win against Montreal will bring the Union to 20 points, just 1 point shy of the Impact.