Montreal Impact have spent a lot of time on the road to start the 2018 MLS season, and the Canadian club’s three home matches offer more confusion than clarity. The Impact’s 2-1 home record (3-7-0 overall) includes a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC is March when the defending champions still had their collective eggs in a basket marked “CONCACAF Champions League.” Montreal then took it on the chin from LAFC 5-3 before getting back in the win column last weekend by crushing New England 4-2 behind Ignacio Piatti’s ways.
Impact in back
The Impact’s defensive numbers are arresting, and they represent more than just bad luck: Remi Garde’s men have given up two goals per game at home and 2.44 goals per game on the road, and their Expected Goals Against is hovering around two per match no matter where they play.
Those numbers, much like the Union’s own defensive metrics this season, are driven by some fairly absurd opponent shooting. Thus far, 60% of visitor shots at Stade Saputo have been on frame, and that is an eye-opening 18% higher than any club allowed last season.
The huge caveat, of course, is sample size: Montreal has played three home matches and Philadelphia has hit the road only four times in 2018. And there is another catch when looking ahead to Saturday’s match: How do you gameplan for an Impact side that may need to rest the player who has been involved in 11 of their 14 goals this season? Nacho Piatti has already logged over 165 minutes this week, including a full 90 against Chicago on Wednesday. He’s 33 years old, and Montreal flat-out need him to stay healthy this year if they hope to compete for a playoff spot. All that said, much like one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply assume Piatti will not play. He’s just too valuable.
So much of Montreal’s transition attack runs through Piatti that Remi Garde switched from a 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2 when the playmaker missed a match against New England earlier this season. It’s unclear how the new Impact coach hoped to attack through this formation because Saphir Taider stepped over the ball and onto Luis Caicedo’s leg 13 minutes into the match, leaving Garde to scramble his 10-man side into a deep block that still conceded four times.
If Piatti does play, the Union will likely send Keegan Rosenberry into battle against him. Piatti is a challenging mark 1v1, so Rosenberry will need support from his centerback to keep the Argentinian at bay. This means the entire back four must work to maintain their spacing as they rotate across to minimize the space between Piatti and Saphir Taider. The newly acquired French midfielder -- the latest Impact loanee to arrive from Bologna -- is likely to carry the creative load if Piatti sits, and he may engage in an intriguing battle with Ale Bedoya to see who can pin the other deep.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this matchup is Montreal’s penchant for direct play against the Union’s desire to possess the ball. The Impact like to play directly from back to front, with Piatti often dropping toward midfield to collect second balls along with Taider. This can leave the Impact shape stretched, and Canadian holding midfielder Samuel Piette is asked to cover a lot of ground to keep opposing teams from counterattacking with ease. Piette has an engine and good positional sense, but he’s also only one man. Against Columbus, the Union created situations in which Wil Trapp was similarly stranded, but they struggled to put Trapp under pressure by playing into the spaces around him.
Against the Impact, Philly will need Borek Dockal to win his battles with Piette. Dockal’s ability to spread the field can help Philly stretch out a very suspect Montreal back four and open gaps for the balls in behind that the Union desperately need to create high quality scoring chances.
Jim Curtin’s men should be able to use their affinity for the right side of the pitch to attack Montreal’s left center back Jukko Raitala and fullback Daniel Lovitz. In the clip below, you can see Lovitz take off upfield before the Impact have control of the ball, leaving an enormous space for Raitala to cover.
Where will the battles happen
Whether Piatti plays or not will not change Montreal’s goal to dominate the wide areas. Piette is often alone in the center because the Impact want to push players into the half-spaces 5-10 yards inside of the wing areas.
With a striker and fullback joined by one of the three midfielders, the Impact can create isolations that allow skill players like Taider and Piatti to create. If the Union need to roll midfielders out to the wings for defensive support, they risk both emptying the middle defensively and losing the ability to quickly outlet off turnovers and attack the big holes around Piette.
Rest and return strong
Both teams will likely need to rest key players as they arrive at the back end of three games in a week. For Philly, that may mean giving Fabinho -- only just returned from injury -- additional recovery time. The Impact are in a difficult position because they need to develop more cohesion in their defense without wearing everybody out. Additionally, Samuel Piette is asked to be a workhorse alone in front of the back four, and that could lead to heavy legs on Saturday afternoon in the sun.
Even after a slow start, the Union have a chance to sneak back toward the playoff picture with wins in Montreal and then at home against Real Salt Lake. Those points will do a lot to raise confidence levels before a face-off with I-95 rival New York Red Bulls in two weeks.