MONTREAL — Before Saturday’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, one could have perhaps excused the Montreal Impact for having only one win in their first seven games.
After last year’s emotional defeat to Toronto FC in the MLS Conference Finals, this older Impact side was always going to need some extra time to find its rhythm in the new season. It wasn’t handed the easiest of early schedules, with five of the first seven games away from home, and MLS teams don’t win games away from home, so if the Impact didn’t win any of those (they didn’t), it’s not the end of the world. Because in MLS, it’s important that you’re victorious at home.
The Impact didn’t win their first game at home, blowing a two-goal lead with seven minutes to play, but that was only one game, so again, not the end of the world. In their second home game, they won, which all but confirmed the fact that there was no reason for anyone to get excited. Yes, they didn’t play so well, and Atlanta United was playing with ten men for half of the game, but a win is a win.
Montreal might not have been very good in its first seven games, but even with only one win, it was still only three points out of a playoff spot. There was no reason to panic just yet. In time, the pieces would come together. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Impact in their first six seasons in MLS—and players and coaches like to remind us of this— it’s that it is not so much how you start, but rather how you finish.
But now the Impact have lost at home, too. After taking the early lead in the ninth minute Saturday, Vancouver came back to win 2-1. The visitors deserved it. The Impact had some bright spells, particularly in the second half, but overall, the Whitecaps had more control, especially in midfield, where Andrew Jacobson, Tony Tchani and Matias Laba had the better of Hernan Bernardello, Marco Donadel, and Patrice Bernier.
As much as one may wish the Impact well, it’s hard to keep saying that things will get better with time. It’s been eight weeks since the season started, the gap with the teams above the red playoff line is getting larger, and one has to seriously question the direction this team is heading in.
Speaking after the game about the season so far, Montreal coach Mauro Biello didn’t hide his own unease.
“I’m concerned,” Biello said. “I’m very concerned. It’s my job to be concerned. It’s my job to find solutions. Right now, certain things are not working. I find that we still need to do a better job of not giving up easy goals as far as I’m concerned. At the end of the day we need to find that consistency that’s not there right now.”
What the Impact did in the playoffs last season was remarkable as it was unexpected. Biello got the very best out of his players. And the thinking was that in keeping pretty much the same squad intact over the off-season, and adding some players in the summer, that the Impact would be okay. But it’s always a danger to stand pat in MLS (see the Impact in 2014).
Biello still has one of the best players in the league in Ignacio Piatti. In his first season, 18-year-old academy product Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla has been very exciting to watch and has tremendous potential. Patrice Bernier, at 37, can still play (he has four assists). Swiss international midfielder and designated player Blerim Dzemaili, who currently leads Serie A outfit Bologna in scoring, should make the team better when he arrives at some point in the summer.
But there are evident weaknesses on this Impact team.
Biello has to rely on an older and not very mobile central midfield that often and easily gets bossed around physically by more dynamic opponents (as was the case against Vancouver). Adrian Arregui, an off-season signing from Argentina, was supposed to be someone who could help in central midfield, but he’s been used very sparingly, which suggests that Biello isn’t very impressed with what he’s seen from the midfielder in training.
Matteo Mancosu, who has two goals in eight games and doesn’t offer enough in the construction of play, is the primary forward on this team and is taking up some valuable salary cap space to boot (see the MLS player salaries that came out last week). Where does he stand in comparison with the other starting centre forwards from the Eastern Conference —David Villa, Bradley Wright-Philips, Jozy Altidore, Cyle Larin, Josef Martinez and Ola Kamara?
To make matters worse, Mancosu came off injured against the Whitecaps and could be out for a few weeks, which brings me to one other issue with the Impact: depth. Who replaces Mancosu? Or who replaces Piatti should he get injured (and he already has; and the results weren’t pretty).
After the win, Vancouver coach Carl Robinson emphasized the importance of “the squad” in MLS. The Whitecaps have a bucket load of injuries at the moment, and still managed to beat the Impact away from home. Biello can only work with what he’s got, and it must be said that his options are limited.
On defence, the Impact are still struggling with many of the same problems that have affected them since 2012: defending crosses and set pieces. You can point to organizational issues at times, or concentration, but as long as they lack size, they’re going to leak goals. Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera have quality but they need a partner with complementary characteristics.
Players are underachieving. Ciman hasn’t looked himself for some time— lacking confidence in his one-versus-one defending and in possession. Struggling to do a whole lot right in midfield, Bernardello looks almost consumed by frustration. In the last two seasons, Dominic Oduro has played probably the best soccer of his career, but the speedster’s been slow out of the gate in this campaign. There are probably others who could be mentioned as well.
The mentality of the team also needs to change. They need to tighten things up tactically. It’s one thing for Ciman to play a bad pass out of the back on the Whitecaps’ winning goal, but there’s no excuse for not trying to close down quickly in defensive transition.
Changes are probably on the way; the first needs to be to start playing with a little more tenacity. While it might be true that how a team starts a season in MLS doesn’t count for much in the end, the fact is that we’re past that point.