By Aaron Nielson (@enbsports)
Montreal is maybe the most under-the-radar club in MLS, highlighted by amount of times (or lackthereof) they are included in national broadcast games. Even if you attend games in Montreal the atmosphere is more like a lower league game in Europe than traditionally the experience of MLS. These aren't insults - they've been an advantage for the Impact as the environment has allowed them to recruit both senior and youth players to their club that other MLS clubs would struggle lure.
2016 would generally be regarded as a success for the Impact, although their final game in Toronto was a huge disappointment, as they were up two goals and held the away goals tie-breaker, only to collapse in Toronto and miss out on the MLS Cup Final. Montreal's older legs and defense capitulated, allowing Toronto to score five goals and ending the Montreal's season. With limited moves in the off-season these issues are still concerns for Montreal going into the 2017 season as well.
But first let’s talk about the positives. Montreal is led by Ignacio Piatti who could have easily been MVP in 2016. Piatti finished the season with 17 goals and six assists playing a deeper role then most of the DP stars in MLS. His xG results suggest that he was bit lucky scoring six more goals than expected, although this also opens the idea that he is that much better shooting from distance then the average player in the MLS. Position-wise Piatti plays part of a forward three, although he also has a lot of freedom to move where he wishes.
With Didier Drogba no longer part the team, Piatti's two forward partners will most likely be Dominic Oduro who according to MLS xG records is one of the more underrated players in MLS and Matteo Mancosu. Moncosu was loaned in from Montreal Impact's owner Joey Saputo's Italian club Bologna is a typical target forward and provides both a target option up front and a player who can convert chances in the box such as a rebound. Montreal also gave a homegrown contract to 17 year old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, the Canadian/Cote d'Iviorian has great athletic skills and could be the breakout prospect of MLS in 2017.
Montreal's midfield is experienced but old, and those are separate points as the experience provides a great awareness of the game although the older legs can hurt the Impact both late in games and later in the season. Hernán Bernardello is an example of Montreal as a MLS destination, with him returning to the club after first leaving to Liga MX in 2014. Bernadello, Marco Donadel, and Patrice Bernier are responsible for almost 30% of Montreal touches and core structure of the Impact's formation allowing others to be more expansive regarding their position on the field.
The players who have the greatest benefit with this system are the full-backs, with left-back Ambroise Oyongo playing as much of an attacking midfield role as one as a full back. Even the Impact's center backs Victor Cabrera and Laurent Ciman are more involved in buildup play and offensive threats than most defenders in MLS. Ciman's numbers compare to many midfielders in MLS with 10% of the team's touches when he's on the field.
So far Montreal has made one key addition in the offseason, and is expected to sign a key player during the regular season as well. They also lost Harry Shipp, Donny Toia, Johan Venegas, Kyle Bekker and Lucas Ontivero who all played supporting roles in 2016 but did provide good depth. The Impact lost Toia in the expansion draft and acquired Chris Duvall from New York to replace him. Like Oyongo, Duvall has good speed and dribbling skills and should provide Montreal further service from the right wing.
The other signing is the addition of Designated Player Blerim Dzemaili who was announced in December will join Montreal in mid-summer. Dzemaili is a Swiss international who also plays for Saputo's Bologna and is supposed to replace Bernier in the Montreal starting line-up. The 30 year old is known for a great shot from distance and is also good on the ball which leads to being fouled in dangerous areas. When Dzemaili joins the Impact, he could also play in a diamond formation with him and Piatti behind Moncosu.
Montreal should not be a team to be underestimated as New York Red Bulls witnessed in the first round of the playoffs in 2016. Montreal might also have the strongest ownership in MLS, despite the lack of spending, since Saputo has connections within the game greater than any other MLS side. And unlike the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, ownership sees the Montreal franchise as a top priority. I could see Montreal making further changes during the season, and they've been rumored to have interest in Canadian International Atiba Hutchinson.
The biggest concern is a weak bench, especially in attacking positions, and the biggest question will be if the team can remain healthy and still have the legs late into the season. As the Impact stand now they should be in contention for a playoff spot in the East. I expect Piatti to be equally as effective as he was last season, and a full-season of Bernadello and Mancosu should allow Montreal to be more consistent from the start of the season.