By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
Last year was a long one for the Impact organization and their fans.
This off-season seemed, at least on the surface, to do very little to inspire hope and convince the supporters that this season will be any better than the last. Following the retirement of Marco Di Vaio, leading scorer over all of the franchises' three MLS seasons, they've done little to replace the star power they once had.
Making things seemingly worse, they traded another established attacking player in Felipe Martins, who was second only to Di Vaio in every goal-scoring-related category since the team joined MLS. It was a move that seemed to further disconnect the fan base from the front office, and it further complicated an uncomfortable situation that even club President Joey Saputo has acknowledged is creating an air of despondence among the fan base.
Still, while their offseason moves have paled in comparison to the flashy signings of rivals Toronto, the Blues have quietly made some capable and complementary additions. Dilly Duka and Jack McInerney were brought in last season to join the war-forged talents of Justin Mapp and Hassoun Camara, but it's the additions to the beleaguered and aging defense that will most improve the team. However unlikely the possibility seems at this stage of pre-season, Montreal has assembled a crew that has the potential to stick around and remain relevant longer than most may think.
Head coach Frank Klopas has not been one to utilize a traditional “go-to” formation. He dropped his propensity to use a 4-4-2 in Chicago after moving North of the border, and showcased his managerial flexibility by sending out a 4-2-3-1 last season. The choice of formation seems to be an adaptation to the personnel at his disposal. Depth at central midfield, coupled with last year’s late addition of playmaker Ignacio Piatti, suggests continued use of a 4-2-3-1 or even a mutated 4-3-3 in some way in 2015.
The Impact dropped the pricey and declining Troy Perkins in lieu of the more affordable Eric Kronberg; a good piece of business for the club despite Kronberg losing his starting position to Andy Greenbaum in Kansas City. Kronberg seemed to be the perfect player to compete with Evan Bush, the club's long-time backup, for the starting goalkeeper job.
Bush is ranked the 12th overall among US Keepers by EverybodySoccer.com and at age 28 seems primed to finally take over the starting job at an MLS club. Three years of our Expected Goals data (2012-2014) and 89 shots show bush Bush to be an average goalkeeper, allowing 27 out of an expected 27.5 goals. This suggests a potential improvement over the 34 goals allowed of 30.51 expected by Perkins last season.
Most would probably say the biggest move this offseason came in the form of 23-year-old attacking full back Ambroise Oyongo, a promising young member of Cameroon’s national team. However, the biggest hesitation with Oyongo is the volume of duels won (4.0 per 90 minutes, 64th among defenders with at least 18 matches played) and the low frequency in which he won them (42% win percentage). This, coupled with his turnover ratio (0.9 per 90, 126th), raises a flag on Oyongo. He has plenty of youth and physical attributes that may offset some technical deficiencies, but he needs to solve those things to prevent them from impairing his upside.
Whether Oyongo even ends up with Montreal is still very much in the air as the legitimacy of his contract with MLS is being questioned by a team in Cameroon. This appeal seems unlikely to succeed, but could delay when Oyongo starts the season with his new club.
The real offseason jewel for my money is Laurent Ciman, a 29-year old Belgian who's tallied nine caps since 2010 and a call-up as recently as 2014. His ability as a stand-up central defender will greatly improve the backline, and he comes without the cost of a designated player contract.
Bakary Soumare is the third and last newcomer to this party that I'll mention. He arrives to his third club in three years, coming off a poor season in Chicago. Despite the rough 2014 season, he is projected to start and brings league experience and athleticism.
Oyongo, Soumare and Ciman are likely join Camara on the backline, though it’s a bit of an unknown how they will fit together with Wandrille Lefèvre and Donald Toia, who was picked up via the Chivas USA dispersal draft.
All told, this isn't the same defense you've seen the last few years in Montreal. This season it’s truly upgraded with both youth and talent that could be one of the primary roots which could grow and spring the club towards a relatively successful season.
The Impact revitalized their central midfield depth this off-season by adding veteran Nigel Reo-Coker through the Re-Entry draft, and dipped their toe back into the comfortable pool of Serie A, signing Marco Donadel. Both talents look to combine with designated player Piatti to give him the defensive support and transition to create goals. Piatti’s role as the primary playmaker will determine how many goals this team creates. If he can continue his end of season form, creating shots in high leverage locations, we can likely expect him to be a success. Still, that's a tall order for team whose offense has been rather inconsistent over the years.
Out wide will feature such attacking talents as Andrés “don’t call me Chris Rolfe” Romero, the ever undervalued left foot of Justin Mapp, and the project that is still Dilly Duka. All have unique talents that will be added to the club, but how that rotation will work and who starts is still up in the air.
I also wouldn't discount Blake Smith finally seeing some daylight this season, and there's a chance Maxim Tissot is used in some capacity in the midfield. as some believe he’ll be consistently selected for the 18.
A five-man midfield implies the use of a sole striker. It seems that choice will come down to one of either Jack McInerney or newly acquired veteran Dominic Oduro getting the nod up top.
JackMac is still only 22 has plenty of upside. But let me be honest with you for a moment, I’m a huge fan of Oduro.* There are only 13 other players that over the past four years have accumulated as many expected goals (45.31) in MLS as Oduro.
It seems strange but many like to dismiss Oduro’s and his lack of eye-catching style as an MLS 1.0 player. People on twitter say things like “he’s all physical attribute no real substance” and “he’s lightening in a bottle, you just have to hope to get lucky.”
Sure, Oduro isn’t the type of striker that is going to bring you 20 goals in a season and win you MLS Cup. He can be a starting striker on an MLS playoff team and one that will still score goals; some pretty, others not so pretty. If he gets 2,500 minutes, I’d be willing to bet he’ll score more than 10 goals, looking at a combination of past years' shot placement and average shots per 90 minutes, he is estimated to net 12 goals.
A nice give and take relationship between him and McInerney must be formed. Neither striker is perfect, so Klopas would be wise to try and use both to accentuate each other’s talents and get the most out of his players. Focus the strengths of one to exploit the weaknesses of that day's opposing defense.
Additionally, there are youngsters Romario Williams, drafted out of Central Florida third overall in the MLS draft and Anthony Jackson-Hamel to serve as depth. Because of their age and lack of experience at MLS level, plus Klopas' past reluctance to play youngsters, I expect either Williams or AJ-H to end up at the USL level with the newly minted Montreal FC.
While scoring the third fewest goals last season didn't help get the results they needed, Montreal's expected goal numbers were only just below average last season. This provides some confidence that a few good bounces may come back their way, raising their goal scoring numbers and with it their placement in the table.
The other problem in 2014 was allowing too many shots (13.4 per 90), 5th most in MLS. This, in turn, resulted in surrendering the 4th most goals (1.68 per 90), and increasing their expected goals (1.42 per 90), good for 8th most. An improved defense should help reduce those numbers, and could even push them into contention for a playoff spot, especially since the expected goals story is better than the actual goals story.
The Impact are a bit of a hard team to evaluate. It seems equally likely this season could end in disarray with everyone losing their job, or that the team could finish in the 5th or 6th seed in an MLS playoff spot. It's not very likely they finish dead last in the East again. Some happy medium between the two seems most likely.
*Harrison is rarely honest with you for longer than a moment.