By Benjamin Harrison (@NimajnebKH)
The 2016 Montreal Impact will be eager to discover whether they can sustain the late season form that propelled them into their second playoff appearance in MLS. There’s hope in the rumor-defying return of Didier Drogba, who carried the team to a 7-1-1 record in his nine starts (scoring 11 goals) to close 2015. Nevertheless, five of those wins came at home, and three came against Colorado and Chicago. Mauro Biello imposed relatively few changes to the roster in his first offseason as head coach, likely indicating some confidence that the changes made last fall are sustainable.
2015 in review
ASA’s 2015 season preview of the Impact projected a position roughly between the cellar and the last playoff seeds – a fair summation of the team’s performance before Biello took over at the end of August. A defensive overhaul cut 14 goals off 2014’s abysmal total of 58 – third worst in the league – with new arrivals taking charge of the defensive midfield and all four positions along the back line. Laurent Ciman (CB), Marco Donadel (DM), and Ambroise Oyongo (RB) arrived perhaps with the greatest fanfare. 23 year-old Angentinian centerback Victor Cabrera, on loan from River Plate, seized the permanent starting role alongside Ciman in late June, and the Impact allowed only 18 goals in his 16 starts from that point.
Before Drogba’s arrival, Montreal’s offense was susceptible to stagnation, overly reliant on the individual skill of Ignacio Piatti in the attacking midfield. Neither Dominic Oduro (poor in distribution) nor Jack McInerney (terrible at everything else) was able to present a consistent threat from striker. Oyongo produced little to show for his promise as an attacking fullback. Dilly Duka and Andres Romero provided only modest support from the attacking midfield. Despite the defensive improvement, the Impact remained at a negative GD before the late season surge.
Goalkeeper and Defense
Montreal returns the GK and backline from last year, but with Oyongo and Donny Toia expected to switch flanks at fullback. Oyongo’s play on the right saw his game drop off both in duel and distribution success from the standard he had set in a fairly small sample size on the left with New York in 2014 (Toia was similarly successful in limited time on the right with Chivas USA). This change should – at the very least – be considered a good experiment for the sake of getting more from the Cameroonian. With Oyongo, Toia, and Cabrera headed into their mid-20s and improved familiarity with the group, the backline is likely to turn in a solid performance with the hope of improvement.
Neither Ciman nor Cabrera are particularly strong in aerial duels, which could leave the Impact vulnerable to strong crossing teams. In 2015, Ciman and Donadel were both fairly prone to fouling, which could compound the team’s weakness in the air. Ciman, Donadel, and Oyongo also suffered from poor card discipline – something the team must avoid for the sake of improved success in playoff series.
Pilfered from hapless Chicago in February, Harry Shipp is the most significant offseason addition to the Impact roster. Shipp was often misused on the flank with the Fire – asked too often to cross or take on flank defenders on the dribble for the sake of his skill set. He brings to Montreal an ability to create from the central midfield previously lacking in the roster apart from Piatti. The offensive focus of Shipp, Piatti, and Romero leaves a high defensive load on Donadel, his defensive partner in midfield (likely Patrice Bernier), and the backline, whether or not Biello retains his 4-3-3 from the end of 2015 or returns to a 4-2-3-1 look as seems most likely. High defensive shares for Donadel and the centerbacks likely exacerbates the disciplinary issues mentioned above, but this negative consequence of midfield emphasis should at least be balanced with a diverse attack in the coming season.
Should the team struggle with injury or poor form, midfield may be the deepest portion of the roster, with MLS-tested Calum Mallace, Eric Alexander, and Kyle Bekker looking for minutes.
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*minimum 300 mins played
Montreal’s hopes of improvement rest on Didier Drogba’s 38 year-old shoulders, but he’s given the league little reason to think age will take him down anytime soon. He remains dominant in the air, and although he may not extend his 2015 production rate over a full season, he will be the constant threat the Impact desperately needed.
For Dominic Oduro, being relegated to bench duty and spot starts may be the best use of his skillset. He will very likely be an early option at forward or wing to run at tired defenders. He may not improve on 2015’s eight goals given the reduced role, but he will still provide a unique service to – overall – a more dangerous offense.
Biello’s switch to a 4-3-3 apparently paid immediate dividends. This and the fullback switch speak well to his ability to tweak tactics to fit the players on hand. The interesting challenge of a full season may or may not come with any questions concerning Drogba’s availability or other tests of team depth.
A healthy Montreal can once again reach the playoffs and perhaps newly reach the conference final as a best finish (particularly in the East). Depth may hold the Impact back against the best teams in MLS. If that depth is tested early an often, a disappointing finish just outside the playoff spots could prompt more extensive offseason work than we’ve seen this year.