After 3 long weeks off for some much-needed rest and recovery during the Gold Cup, the Montréal Impact were back in action Wednesday night at Stade Saputo. Although the break had allowed several players to recover from injury and return to the lineup, the Impact were still short 2 players on the bench. Visiting Portland Timbers were in a similar situation, as they’d done a full squad rotation and had not even brought a full team.
As Orji Okwonkwo and Bacary Sagna returned following injury absences, there remained several question marks around the Bleu-Blanc-Noir. How rusty would the team be? How would they adjust to a 3-4-3 formation, a departure from the usual 4-3-3? Would the players returning from injury be fit enough to contribute meaningfully?
The Impact wasted no time in affirming their desire to create scoring chances. Having referred to the offensive quality as “sterile” or “non-existent” at several points throughout the season, it was truly a breath of fresh air to watch the team set up camp in the attacking third. Okwonkwo and Sagna were notably effective, combining with a chemistry that made it look as though they had played together for months.
After a littany of near misses, Sagna reacted quickly to intercept a pass, deftly sending Okwonkwo behind the defense in the 28th minute. The Nigerian striker put on the afterburners to find himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, and made no mistake, thumping the ball into the roof of the net.
The Impact started the second half a little lethargically, and were made to pay when the Timbers floated in a free kick that Tomas Cocechny headed home to tie the match at 1-1 in the 53rd minute. Montréal promptly woke up and began to play with the intensity they showed in the first half. They were rewarded with the team’s best goal of the season so far, when Victor Cabrera sought out captain Saphir Taïder. Taïder hooked the pass back to Okwonkwo who, from the top of the box, struck the ball on the volley mid-turn, rocketing it into the top corner to score a screamer of a match-winner.
Although the match was very pleasing to watch from a Montréal perspective, especially given how light the squad remains, this 2-1 result should also be taken with a grain of salt. Portland’s approach with a fully rotated squad signified that they were willing to let this match go. Winning a home match is essential, but there will be far stiffer competition to come, and certainly before many Impact players have returned to the lineup.
In the spirit of the condensed schedule, Montréal are off to Mercedes Benz Stadium, where they’ll take on reigning champions Atlanta United who are missing a few of their own key players, but still a tremendously strong team. Yet if the Impact show up with the same hunger that they demonstrated versus the Timbers, anything is possible!
As many of you may not know, I’m a teacher by day. Here in the Great White North, we have reached the end of the school year, so it’s time to hand out report cards to the kids before I can kick back and spend my summer at Stade Saputo.
The spirit of the season has inspired me to give a report card to the team at this halfway point in the the season. In lieu of giving individual grades, players will be divided into 3 categories: Exceeding Expectations, Making the Grade, More Effort Required. Players who have featured in fewer than 5 matches/500 minutes will be exempt from grading as there is an insufficient body of work to assess due to excessive absence. (#teachertalk).
Samuel Piette — I doubt the Bulldog from Repentigny expected to become the de facto captain for the Impact in Nacho Piatti’s extended absence. However, he has represented everything a team captain should embody: strong work ethic, leaving it all on the pitch, keeping a cool head, and being a shining ambassador for the club.
Zakaria Diallo — The central defender had spent the entirety of the 2018 season sidelined by a torn ACL, so expectations for him may have been as simple as “stay healthy.” He has done just that and his aerial prowess has proven crucial as the Impact defend set pieces.
Omar Browne — This shock signing screamed of desperation as Piatti disappeared from the lineup. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, many wondered if he was even worth the International Spot the Impact had to buy to sign Browne. We only had a very small sample size to base his performances on before coming to the team, but his contributions, especially in a sterile offense, have been a breath of fresh air.
Shamit Shome — What a surprise Shome’s rise to Starting XI status has been this season! Signed as a 2017 second-round Superdraft pick, Shome had largely been ignored by 2 Impact coaches until April. The injury-ravaged squad allowed him a series of starts, which the central midfield seized with aplomb. His vision for a pass makes up for a lack of pure technique.
Zachary Brault-Guillard — Get out your chequebook, Joey Saputo! The Lyon loanee is a modern fullback in every sense of the word. Fast, young, hungry, keen to contribute to the attacking phase of play, ZBG has been a more than adequate backup to Sagna, from whom he is undoubtedly learning a great deal.
Making the Grade
Saphir Taïder — The Algerian DP can be the best player on the pitch, or he can be a hindrance to the team. Taïder lacks the consistency he played with last season, and continued to play through an injury for several weeks. The team’s final match before the Gold Cup break, a 2-1 win over Seattle Sounders, where he scored both goals, was probably Taïder’s best performance of the season. Here’s hoping the break allows him the rest and recovery to return to his best self.
Victor Cabrera — Cabrera has made a regular return to the starting XI this season alongside Diallo. He is still known for the risky tackles. When they pay off, he looks like an All-Star player. When they don’t, his teammates are left in hot water. Maybe it’s a different pairing, maybe it’s just luck, but Cabrera has acquitted himself admirably thus far.
Micheal Azira — Having been bumped from the starting XI by Shome’s more offensive qualities, Azira has proven to be a serviceable, if unremarkable, substitute/rotation player.
Orji Okwonkwo — It remains to be seen if Okwonkwo is best suited to a winger or a central striker role, as the team’s needs have kept him on the wings for the beginning of the season. Okwonkwo’s technique and speed have impressed so far, but he’s been sidelined a few times by injury, and we’d like to see him stay healthy.
Bacary Sagna — What the veteran lacks in stamina, he makes up for with cool decision making. Having had a revolving door of partners on the right side of the pitch, Sagna has done his best to develop chemistry with whoever he’s paired with. However, he’s been a victim of the travel-heavy start to the condensed season and is out injured.
Jukka Raitala — The Finnish army knife continues to slot in wherever needed. Rarely looking uncomfortable, Raitala does not make showy tackles when simpler work does the trick.
Evan Bush — Bush stood on his head last season, setting a team record for saves, and a personal record for shutouts. He hasn’t been as rock-steady so far, but is still proving his worth as a veteran in the squad.
Struggling with their Tasks
Harry Novillo — I don’t think much needs to be said here. Novillo was signed on Rémi Garde’s promise that, although he has much ability, his attitude and off-pitch behaviour were what had led Novillo to the Malaysian second division — but he’s changed! Turns out that might not be the case … Frequently injured or ill, Novillo has had little chance to showcase his abilities, and Garde himself has said the player still needs to demonstrate more professionalism.
Maxi Urruti — It seems cruel to classify Urruti as a player who isn’t doing enough. He runs his guts out without fail every match. However, he’s a striker with only one goal this season (a penalty), and who still looks a bit lost in the box. After 2 seasons of toothless strikers, Impact fans are antsy for something more clinical.
Daniel Lovitz — Nicknamed “Marcelovitz” last season, Daniel Lovitz earned his first USMNT call-up in the January camp. Unfortunately, he returned a shadow of the overlapping, attack-minded player we saw previously. He has played a far more conservative game thus far, and seems to have had the confidence drained out of him.
As I always tell concerned parents at our conferences, this is just a progress report, not a definitive grading! There is still plenty of time for the players who have disappointed so far to improve. Here’s hoping that they rise to the challenge!
In all of their visits to BBVA Compass Stadium to take on the Houston Dynamo, Montréal Impact have only ever taken one point. If there are matches on the calendar that fans circle with great anticipation, a trip to Houston is not one of them. However, with the positive atmosphere surrounding the team this year, surely the tide was going to change?
Not to be the case.
Time and again, outside factors such as the stifling humidity, artificial turf, and a lack of ambiance in the stadium have been blamed for the Impact’s consistently poor performances in Texas. And perhaps the display the team demonstrated on the field was a result of any combination of those factors.
Ignacio Piatti, the man who makes the sun rise and set for the Impact, was smothered by defenders any time he got a whiff of the ball, remaining well-shackled and unable to contribute to the game. Passes were errant, attacking creativity lacked, and the Impact conceded a late goal – and all the points – after switching off as Houston ramped the intensity up a notch. Over the course of 90 minutes, there was only one team in the match, the team who had played a mid-week game nonetheless.
As Rémi Garde put forth an unchanged starting eleven from San Jose, fans were pleased to see that the players would get a chance to build off the chemistry that had been building since pre-season. But as many passes went to the opposition and communication seemed non-existent, that chemistry seemed to evaporate before our eyes. Perhaps the Impact need to remain sequestered in a hotel all season in order to maintain continuity?
The highlight of the match for Impact fans was undoubtedly Saphir Taïder’s second goal in as many matches, nearly a carbon copy of his goal in San Jose – the Algerian snuck behind the defense to finish a deep pass, this time off a brilliant cross from Micheal Azira.
Houston would go on to score immediately after play restarted, before laying a second-half siege to the Impact’s half, much as San Jose did in the previous match.
As the long road trip continues, fans will hope that fatigue does not get the better of the Bleu-Blanc-Noir, as it seemed to do in Houston. Additionally, it looks as though we are in for another year of “Nacho-dependence,” this writer is off to light a candle for our maestro.
The Impact will take to the road once again, this time visiting Orlando City SC, on Saturday, March 16.
Montréal Impact had enjoyed a string of promising pre-season results, going undefeated in all matches with only one goal conceded. However, anyone who has ever watched MLS knows that pre-season performances are not totally indicative of how a team’s competitive campaign will go. Regardless, as the team spent 40 long days toiling under the hot Florida sun to get in game shape and strengthen the chemistry that saw them finish the 2018 season on a strong note, a quiet optimism began to buzz around the IMFC fanbase.
The Impact’s schedule will undoubtedly test their mettle, as they begin with six consecutive road games while waiting for the Canadian winter to end. Last year, their road form was far from sparkling. A mere 11 points picked up in away games does not exactly inspire confidence when a team needs to start the season on a strong note. However, this is Rémi Garde’s second year in charge, there has been less upheaval in the squad than last year, and several interesting players have come in, notably Maxi Urruti, Harry Novillo, and Zakaria Diallo (who was signed for the 2018 season, but did not play due to an ACL injury).
2019’s first official lineup saw Diallo, Urruti, and Bologna loanee Orji Okwonkwo make their débuts for the Bleu-Blanc-Noir. Fans’ confidence in the Impact’s improvements were short-lived, as a disjointed start saw San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Magnus Eriksson open the scoring in the 11th minute after Victor Cabrera mistimed a tackle and left an ocean of space at the top of the 18-yard box. Similar to their 2018 road record, the Impact were a dismal 1-13-2 after conceding the first goal last season, so having to face adversity this early in the season, after having enjoyed a comfortable pre-season was far from an ideal situation.
Thankfully, the goal proved a sufficient wakeup call for the Impact, as they snapped into life. In a feat that has been notoriously rare, team MVP Ignacio Piatti scored on a corner played short, allowing the Argentinian maestro to do what he does best—dribble around defenders to unleash a bullet into the back of the net with his magical left foot.
As halftime neared, the Impact were well in control of the match, often enjoying controlled spells of possession—a clear departure from the “sit deep and absorb pressure” tactic employed last season. Diallo had roamed forward from his central defender position to pick up the ball in San Jose’s half and was given an ocean of space to parade forward and launch a mouth-watering low cross to Saphir Taïder who dropped off the shoulder of his defender to give the Impact the lead. There remains some debate as to whether or not the Algerian was offside at the time of the cross. However, neither the linesman nor VAR signaled, and the goal was good.
The second half saw a return to old tactics, as the Impact bunkered and allowed the Earthquakes to essentially lay siege to their half. Evan Bush was called into action on a few instances, but the defensive line held tight. The match ended 2-1, with the Impact emerging victorious from San Jose, much to the delight of players and fans alike.
There are still 5 road games left before the home opener on April 13th. But, as the Impact opened their season on such a positive note, there is a lot more optimism around this long road trip. Next, the Impact again travel to hostile ground—Houston Dynamo—to play on Saturday, March 9th.
Things were going so well … or so we thought. After picking up 2 consecutive wins while playing a 5-3-2 formation, Rémi Garde’s vision for the Montreal Impact seemed to be taking shape. Then, the team traveled to Foxborough to face the New England Revolution, a team who had also undergone a coaching change in the offseason. Fans were excited to see how the teams would stack up against each other so early in their new seasons.
Trouble announced itself for the Impact when the starting lineup came out an hour before the match. The team was playing a 5-3-2 once again, but Nacho Piatti’s name was nowhere to be found on the team sheet. The Argentinian maestro had not made the trip due to a slight injury. Instead, it was Anthony Jackson-Hamel, returning from his own injury, who took up the position as a secondary striker in Piatti’s absence.
Although the teams began the match on a fairly even footing, the 14th minute changed everything for the Impact. Saphir Taïder was attempting a roulette move, where he turned around and was meant to mislead an opponent with a dribble. As he was mid-turn, NE’s Luis Caicedo stepped in to challenge possession. Taïder’s foot was coming down and his studs made contact with Caicedo’s shin. Referee Jose Carlos Rivero did not hesitate to brandish a straight red card toward the Algerian midfielder. The Impact would now face the remaining 75+ minutes down a man, without either of their Designated Players.
#IMFC down to 10 men early in the game, as Saphir Taider gets sent off. Didn’t look intentional, but he went over the ball and straight into Caicedo’s leg. Painful for Caicedo, could’ve been a serious injury. #NERevs#NEvMTL#MLSpic.twitter.com/Rye3CMpEdM
Unsurprisingly, this turn of events resulted in a loss. What was surprising, was how quickly the Impact’s game unraveled, and how there seemed to be no solution to make up for Taïder’s ejection. This was Samuel Piette’s first night wearing the captain’s armband, and he undoubtedly had a Herculean task in trying to lead a group who had just lost their most important player.
The players who were on the pitch after the card played afraid. Passes were sloppy, communication was lacking, and other reckless challenges – including one which led to a penalty – dogged the ten men left on the pitch for the remainder of the match.
Although there is no magic wand a coach can wave to fix his formation or to make the right player magically appear, it remains a mystery what Rémi Garde attempted to adjust in the remaining lineup of players.
Perhaps no event underlines the air of defeat with which the Impact played after the red card than when the much-maligned Dominic Oduro was given his first minutes of 2018 when the result was already sealed. Maybe it was meant to give a player who is actively on the market a few minutes to pull off some magic and up his value, but it seemed like a poison pill from the part of the coaching staff.
The only good thing the Impact will take home with them from New England is that Lyes Ould-Ramoul (LyesMTL) finished second in the eMLS Cup!
On the other hand, one can certainly hope that Garde benefits from having a week’s warning that he will be without Taïder’s services, as the player will be suspended for the Impact’s upcoming trip to Red Bull Arena.