Despite having a rollercoaster season in 2016, failing to find stability in its starting XI, the Montreal Impact finally seemed to put all the pieces together and finished with an exciting and memorable run in the Major League Soccer playoffs. When the Impact face the Earthquakes at Avaya Field San Jose this weekend, it is more than probable that Mauro Biello will field the exact same starting XI that started the Eastern Conference final return leg in Toronto just a few short months ago.
Ironically, stability – which was lacking pretty much all of last season – has been the key of the Bleu-Blanc-Noir’s strategy during the off-season. Technical Director Adam Braz has been constantly repeating during the winter that the club was aiming foremost at keeping its starting XI intact. Therefore, there were only a few moves, and clearly nothing to write home about. Here is the situation ahead of the 2017 season:
No moves to report.
The only notable change in this department is the promotion of Academy product and Canadian Men’s National Team member Maxime Crépeau, moving to the number 2 spot after veteran Eric Kronberg accepted a reduced role with the first team in the hopes of getting involved with the Academy in some capacity.
OUT: Donny Toia, Amadou Dia
IN: Chris Duvall, Daniel Lovitz
It is a well-known fact that the Impact has had all sorts of problems defending on set pieces last year. Yet no real reinforcements were brought in. Even worse, left-back Donny Toia has been picked by Atlanta in the Expansion Draft (and then traded to Orlando), leaving a huge gap behind African Cup champion Ambroise Oyongo. With Oyongo on the radar of several European clubs and a possible departure in the summer, the club is now relying on ex-TFC man Daniel Lovitz to cover for the Cameroon international. On the right flank, Chris Duvall is expected to see some action, leaving Mauro Biello with the option to move Hassoun Camara in central defence from time to time. The arrival of Duvall also adds the possibility of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 to Biello’s arsenal.
OUT: Johan Venegas, Harry Shipp, Lucas Ontivero, Kyle Bekker, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé
IN: Adrian Arregui, Louis Béland-Goyette, Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, Shamit Shome + expected summer arrival of Bleirim Dzemaili
Subs Harry Shipp and Johan Venegas failed to impress with the Impact last year and were traded to Seattle and Minnesota respectively, while Galatasaray loanee and young designated player Lucas Ontivero was released after a catastrophic spell at the club. As announced after the USL 2016 season, Academy products Louis Béland-Goyette and Jean-Yves Ballou Tabla have been added to the squad and should see some action this season. However, the most notable transfer is the arrival of pitbull midfielder Adrian Arregui on loan from Argentina Primera División side CA Temperley. The 24 year-old Argentinian will be a breath of fresh air in the aging midfield of the Impact, as he should be able to sub in or replace Hernan Bernardello or Marco Donadel. Of course, the announced arrival of Bleirim Dzemaili next summer (although things don’t look quite as clear from a Bologna perspective) will allow the Impact to play a more direct attacking style down the line. Meanwhile, keep an eye on that Ballou guy. The 17 year-old might just have found his way in the starting XI when Dzemaili arrives. If Dzemaili arrives, that is.
OUT: Didier Drogba
IN : Nick DePuy
That in/out summary surely looks brutal, but Nick DePuy has brought in a profile that the Impact was lacking up front with the departure of Drogba, with Matteo Mancosu and homegrown striker Anthony Jackson-Hamel playing a somewhat similar style. And DePuy has done well during the preseason, offering a big target up front, playing well with his back to the goal and combining well with wingers Piatti and Oduro. Both Jackson and DePuy should see minutes behind main striker Mancosu, who was stellar during the playoffs last year.
Last season was Mauro Biello’s first full season as Montreal Impact head coach. Although the 2016 season is seen by many as a success, the fact remains that Biello had a hard time juggling with his lineups and tactics for most of the season – the team was not able to align more than two consecutive wins during the regular season. Biello tried his darndest to instill a style based on ball possession, but it is only when he decided to throw his notes out of the window and rely on the good old counter-attacking skills of his crew that the Impact finally took flight.
With the Impact betting on stability during the off-season, Biello seems to have learned from his past mistakes and has made sure not to try changing the DNA of the team this time around. But the man is stubborn. Ball possession still seems to be the thing that keeps him up at night. “Our team can play a direct style, but can also hang on to the ball”, said Biello after the team first training session in January. “We want to get more of the ball and press higher.” If that recent preseason game against Philadelphia is any indication, Biello might just have found a way to make it work. The Impact’s high press was causing all sorts of problems for the Union, and for a long period of time in the first half, the ball was at the feet of a Montreal player, and more often than not in Philadelphia’s half. However, the old legs of the Impact midfielders supposed to be winning that ball back (30 year-old Bernardello, 33 year-old Donadel and 37 year-old Bernier) might be a problem when it comes to playing that style for a full 90 minutes. Based on that, it is safe to say that this tactical approach will mostly be used when needed rather than be the new identity of the team.
Judging on the lack of movement during the winter transfer window, leading to an identical starting XI as last year, it is hard to say that the team has improved over last season. Of course, some interesting changes have been made, but only in the depth chart of the team. The main problems seen over the course of 2016, namely the lack of construction and the defensive problems on set pieces, do not seem to have been addressed, and work on the training field might not be enough to improve things, at least in the first few months of the season. The team definitely will make a run for the playoffs, possibly finishing fifth, as was the case in 2016.
The Montreal Impact kicks-off its 2017 season this coming Saturday against the Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium in San Jose (10 pm ET, 7 pm PT).