By Aaron Nielson (@enbsports)
After a poor 2017 season, Montreal has added both youth and talent to their roster. Unfortunately, it has been matched by an even greater exodus of talent. The Impact will certainly look different in 2018, but they probably won't look any better.
2017 in Review
A year ago in my preview I called Montreal the most under-the-radar club in MLS. Going into 2018 this is even more true, partly because of the disappointing season for the Impact in 2017. They missed the playoffs and finished ninth in the East, which encouraged hands-on owner Joey Saputo to start a rebuild. That process began with the firing of manager Mauro Biello at the end of the 2017 season.
Despite not making the playoffs in 2017, ASA's expected goals model suggests Montreal was quite lucky to finish the season with only a -5 goal differential, as our xGD had them closer to -14, tied for third worst in the league. A major part of this xG discrepancy was because of the 17 goals scored by Montreal's best player, Ignacio Piatti, which was 7.65 more than his expected goals. That was the biggest difference for any player in 2017, a stat that becomes even more worrying when you account for the fact that Piatti was also one the of highest goalscorers in terms of unassisted goals (33.8% of his shots were unassisted). If Montreal wishes to compete in 2018 they need Piatti to continue to generate goals for himself at an elite level.
The Impact have replaced Biello with Remi Garde, a former France international and Lyon, Strasbourg and Arsenal player. Garde has also coached at a high level, managing Lyon when they won the Coup de France, and taking over during traumatic time at Aston Villa, where he won only three games in 23 and was fired before the club was relegated.
Garde has a reputation as a strategic thinker, although there is also criticism that he comes off well as a TV football pundit, but doesn't have what it takes as an actual coach. One thing that may help him is his friendship with with his former French national teammate and NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira. They were brought into Arsenal at the same time, and despite similar concerns regarding Vieira, he's had a successful time in the league. The Impact are hoping Garde will have equal success.
Montreal made big changes in terms of player personal, with 12 players leaving and ten new players (so far) brought in. As one of the oldest teams in the league in 2017, the Impact saw four players retire this past off-season: Patrice Bernier, Hassoun Camara, Andres Romero and Eric Kronberg. The youth movement continued as they got younger by trading Laurent Ciman to LAFC and declining the option of Hernan Bernardello. They also lost some players for reasons outside of their control, with Blerim Dzemaili returning to Italy, Ambroise Oyongo signing with French Ligue 1 side Montpellier, and young prospect Ballou Tabla leaving for Barcelona (yes that Barcelona).
In the defense they've added centerback Zakaria Diallo from France's Ligue 2 and fullbacks Jukka Raitala, Michael Petrasso and Raheem Edwards. To help Piatti and create some additional offense, Montreal brought in Jeisson Vargas and Saphir Taider as their most high profile signings this offseason.
Defense & Goalkeeper
More on this below, but a real lack of defensive minded players in the midfield will put more pressure on the Impact's backline. The defense lost their best player in Ciman, who was a team leader of the back line and arguably the team's 2nd most important player. Ciman's centerback partner Victor Cabrera returns and will be teamed up with new signing from Zakaria Diallo. Neither have the composure of Ciman, which could lead to more chances and penalties for Montreal's opponents. The fullbacks are Chris Duvall and new signings Jukka Raitala, Michael Petrasso and Raheem Edwards. All are considered attacking fullbacks with defense being their biggest weakness. This should provide some added width, although there is reason to be worried when they're dealing 1v1 against other attacking wide players.
In goal is veteran Evan Bush, who allowed 9.67 more goals than expected in 2017, including 10 goals from distance. Still, he did not allow a goal from inside the 6-yard box, though credit for that can also be attributed to the presence of Ciman.
New signings Taider and Vargas will team up with Piatti in the Midfield. Both technically gifted, they will be looking to use their ball control and pinpoint passing to set up scoring opportunities. Vargas is from Chile and follows the league-wide trend of signing young attacking players. In his short time in Argentina he actually created more chances than much higher profile Atlanta signing Ezequiel Barco. Taider has been one of the best passers in terms of percentage in Italian Serie A over the past several years, completing over 90% for his career. Both players are also decent shooting from range but won't provide much in terms of defense.
To provide defensive grit in the midfield, Montreal again will rely on 34 year old Marco Donadel. Donadel has played well since coming to MLS, although his age is beginning to show. They brought in Canadian Samuel Piette last August and he performed well as a defensive minded distributor.
Given Montreal's willingness to shoot from distance, it means the one striker up front has less involvement in the play. Under Biello they were mostly used to convert chances on set-pieces or off rebounds from long distance shots. Returning is the Montreal strike force from last season in Italian Matteo Mancosu, MLS veteran Dominic Oduro, and Canadian homegrown player Anthony Jackson-Hamel. Last year the three combined for 16 goals with both Mancosu and Oduro scoring fewer than expected. Jackson-Hamel's nine goals was five more than expected so he may struggle to achieve the same output this year.
Despite the coaching change and major roster turnover during the off-season, it doesn't look as if Montreal has improved. Given the loss of key players and a lack of quality replacements, I could see the Impact performing even worse this season. Add the fact that most teams around them made major improvements over the winter and you can easily see Montreal as a last place team in the Eastern Conference. That being said, Paitti is still a star in the league and players like Vargas, Taider, Piette, Jackson-Hamel, Edwards and Petrasso are exciting talents. They could make Montreal far more potent than expected. Still, I think like his time with Aston Villa, Garde has an insurmountable task ahead of him and it will be interesting to see either how motivated he is to do the job or how much time Saputo gives him.