MLS is Back: Where Canada’s teams stand ahead of the tournament

Montreal Impact's Saphir Taider, right, challenges Toronto FC's Auro during first half MLS soccer action in Montreal, Saturday, July 13, 2019. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The MLS is Back Tournament kicks off on Wednesday with a pair of Group A matches. But Canadian fans will pay extra attention once Group B and Group C start up.

The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC were drawn together into Group C, meaning arguably the fiercest rivalry in the league during the group stage. Montreal kicks off against the New England Revolution on Thursday with Toronto’s opener on Sunday versus D.C. United.

The Vancouver Whitecaps will also experience a derby, having been paired with the Seattle Sounders in Group B. However, due to FC Dallas’ withdrawal from the tournament, the Whitecaps are scheduled to begin play on July 15.

With clubs experiencing a nearly four-month layoff, here is how each Canadian MLS team is looking ahead of the tournament.

Toronto FC

There could be a few tweaks to coach Greg Vanney’s lineup for the D.C. United match. With rookie winger Ifunanyachi Achara ruled out for the remainder of the season, that opens up a spot out wide. Vanney told Sportsnet’s A Kick in the Grass that Pablo Piatti has been operating on the right as an inverted winger where he can cut inside onto his stronger left foot, which might add a new element to the side.

Piatti was injured to start the season after signing as a designated player, but with him and captain Michael Bradley now fully fit, both could start in a fluid-looking lineup.

This could easily change come matchday, though. Piatti could move back to the left to accommodate Erickson Gallardo on the right. Tsubasa Endoh and Nick DeLeon can occupy those roles, too. Jonathan Osorio, Noble Okello and Liam Fraser are some of the midfield options, or Osorio could be deployed in a Blaise Matuidi-for-France-style role.

Jonathan Osorio’s and Marky Delgado’s statistical radars from the 2019 MLS season.

There’s obvious depth at the back, but few MLS sides are able to choose between two solid right-backs like Auro Jr., and Richie Laryea. Both players are great going forward, though Laryea is the sturdier defender, so Vanney can choose depending on the situation and opponent.

But the big storyline will be Piatti’s performance. The last time the 31-year-old logged at least 1,000 minutes in league play was the 2017-18 La Liga campaign with Espanyol. That was one year removed from a career year when he recorded 10 goals and eight assists in 30 appearances.

Injuries have limited Piatti’s minutes since that 2016-17 season, but with his dribbling, pace and vision, he could be a handful for MLS defenders.

Montreal Impact

There are fewer intriguing sides entering the tournament than the Montreal Impact. With Thierry Henry as coach, several players could make the difference in the Impact’s development.

When the legendary French striker was hired, he shifted to a 3-4-3 system to shore up a previously leaky defence. The majority of the Impact’s centre-backs lack pace and the full-backs are offensively inclined, so it was a no-brainer.

The signing of Victor Wanyama has created a logjam in midfield, but that’s a positive given the short turnaround between games. It also bolsters the defence further to have a solid No. 6 who can break up play and circulate the ball forward.

Wanyama’s addition could lead to Henry switching a 3-5-2 with Piette next to the Kenyan and Saphir Taider in a playmaking role. As for the front two, Maxi Urruti has to be given the nod after scoring three goals to begin 2020. Bojan would be favoured to partner Urruti, although he’s logged more minutes next to Romell Quioto.

What’s certain is the Impact are significantly deeper in attack and midfield compared to last season. Joel Waterman and Luis Binks impressed at the back for Montreal in their opening games, so Montreal could force an upset.

Vancouver Whitecaps

After the controversial departure of CEO Mark Pannes in June, the Vancouver Whitecaps are ready to make positive headlines on the pitch.

The opening two matches of the season saw encouraging signs. The Whitecaps lost their opening game to Sporting Kansas City 3-1, but based on the game’s expected goals (xG) map, there were opportunities to earn a result.

Vancouver was also playing deep in its defensive third, which meant fewer chances to pressure the Sporting KC defence.

Whitecaps touch map (left) and average positioning (right) vs. Sporting KC on Feb. 29. (via WhoScored.com, SofaScore)

That changed in the following match versus the LA Galaxy. The Whitecaps deservedly won and improved dramatically on both sides of the ball.

Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel should play major roles given the dearth of quality in the Whitecaps midfield last year. Both players were signed in the off-season and have had a prolonged bedding-in period to acclimatize to their teammates and coach Marc Dos Santos’ system. Their strong defensive attributes and ability to play through a high press should free up Hwang In-beom to influence games further up the pitch.

Dos Santos will have a dilemma given that three of the Whitecaps’ potential forward options withdrew from the tournament on Tuesday. But there should be some improvement in the middle of the pitch.

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