Impact’s difficulty in building attacks a worrying trend

Montreal Impact's Dominic Oduro, center, vies for the ball with New York City FC's Maxime Chanot, right and Ronald Matarrita, left, during an MLS Eastern Conference soccer match at Yankee Stadium in New York, Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Andres Kudacki/AP)

There is still some magic in this Montreal Impact team. 

When it seemed like only a matter of time before New York City FC was going to add to their one-goal lead in Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium, which ended 1-1, the Impact managed to pull themselves level with a fine goal. 

Patrice Bernier’s diagonal pass over the top of the New York defence was so good it even managed to fool Ronald Matarrita, one of the league’s best defenders, as he jumped too early and the ball floated past him, over his head and onto the chest of Dominic Oduro. The Impact forward didn’t have much space to control the ball in any other way than very closely in front of him, and that’s what he did.

The ball dropped and bounced, and Oduro coolly finished into the top shelf with the side of his foot. It was a clinical strike, precisely the kind of goal the Impact needed in a game where they didn’t create a lot of scoring opportunities.

That was in the 68th minute, and NYCFC, who had been very impressive up until that point, lost their groove and never recovered. The Impact frustrated the host's dynamic attack and, in the end, held on for the point quite comfortably. As a bonus, they might have also cast a little self-doubt into their Eastern Conference opponents, who are one of the early favourites for MLS honours. 

"We were losing 1-0, but we showed character," Bernier said. "We kept working hard. We knew we'd create chances, and we managed to get this draw against a team that tends to score many goals at home."

The draw means the Impact are winless in their first three games of the Major League Soccer campaign. Or if you really want to be positive you can say that they’re unbeaten in their last two since their 1-0 opening-day loss to San Jose.

But, overall, it’s been a slow start to the season for the Impact, which isn’t unexpected given the challenge of mentally getting up to speed for a new campaign following the euphoria of a late playoff run like the one they had last year. 

But there are reasons to be concerned with the team’s play thus far.

The Impact’s lack of any significant signings during the winter transfer window—outside of Swiss international and designated player Blerim Džemaili, who will only arrive in the summer—means they’re still missing aerial ability in defence and they still depend too much on older legs in central midfield. Bernier, who’s 37, was excellent against New York, Montreal’s best player on the day, but he can’t be reasonably expected to put in that kind of shift every week. 

Probably the biggest worry from the opening three games—especially against San Jose and New York on the road—is the Impact’s difficulty in building attacks.

One of the problems has to do with Matteo Mancosu. He’s great at offering runs in behind defenders—and already has a goal because of it—but he doesn’t offer much at all in the construction of play, which severely limits the Impact’s options in possession. We saw, for example how much David Villa helps New York in their build-up play—checking back towards the ball and then spreading the ball wide, or combining centrally to create overloading situations in the middle and setting up other runners in behind the defence.

Without these attacking solutions, the Impact’s options going forward during the run of play become mostly limited to creating isolations out wide (usually with Ignacio Piatti), overlaps (though not especially common) and delivering balls in behind defenders (but ones that are usually anticipated).

Another problem: coach Mauro Biello doesn’t have another proven or experienced goal scorer on the roster, but Anthony Jackson Hamel might offer something different with his back to goal. 

Watching the way New York dominated in the first half, moving the ball around out of difficult areas, combining intricately, it was hard not to feel like the Impact are further back now from the best teams in the league, as compared with last season. There’s still quality, no question, and there’s still a coach who’s capable, but there’s lots of work to be done if they want to close that gap. 

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