By Eric Walcott (@ericwsoccer)
In a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs, any season in which you don’t get there has to qualify as a disappointment. That said, it would be unfair to be too harsh on the 2018 Montreal Impact. The Impact made big changes headed into last year, including significant roster turnover and the appointment of Remi Garde as manager. A slow start wasn’t completely unexpected, though losing 11 of their first 15 games was probably a slower start than even the most pessimistic fans had envisioned. By June it was looking like the Remi Garde experiment might not be working out. The Impact were bottom of the table, hadn’t hadn’t scored a goal in four games, went a nine-match stretch where they lost eight games and were outscored 24-9, and were getting into fights in practice. Garde was calling players out individually in press conferences and it all just seemed to be falling apart.
Something clicked though and in their last 19 games, the Impact earned 34 points and got themselves back on the brink of a playoff berth. Though they fell just short, their 1.79 points per game over that span would’ve put them 3rd in the Eastern Conference if they had done that over a full season.
Defensively, the Impact were about mid-table in MLS. Their xGA of 45.7 was actually 7th best in the league, though their actual goals against (50) was only 11th best. They allowed the 9th fewest shots against in the league, though they struggled to prevent teams from taking shots from good positions. The average distance from goal on shots faced by goalkeeper Evan Bush was just 17.2 yards. Bush was one of the standout performers for Montreal in 2018, ranking second in the entire league in our Points Above Replacement metric, as well as second among goalkeepers in GA-xGA behind only Stefan Frei. For the season Bush allowed nearly seven goals fewer than the expected goals model would predict.
Offensively, the Impact were a bit of a disaster. With just 41.5 expected goals for, Montreal was 3rd worst in the league, better than only Colorado and Chicago. Their 45 goals scored was 4th worst, and their 12.5 shots per game was 6th worst.
In news that will surprise nobody, Ignacio Piatti was the Impact’s top attacker in 2018, along with continuing to be one of the most dangerous players in Major League Soccer. Piatti’s 15.65 non-penalty xG+xA was good for 17th in MLS, and his 16 goals and 11 assists put him among the best in MLS in goal contribution. Sephir Taider was second on the team with 12.1 xG+xA. Other top contributors included Alejandro Silva, Raheem Edwards, Quincy Amraikwa, and Matteo Mancosu...which brings us to the outgoing transfers portion of Montreal’s offseason moves.
D - Rod Fanni (11/26/18 - option declined)
D - Kyle Fisher (11/26/18 - option declined)
M - Louis Beland-Goyette (11/26/18 - option declined)
M - David Choiniere (11/26/18 - option declined)
F - Michael Salazar (11/26/18 - option declined)
F - Quincy Amarikwa (11/26/18 - out of contract)
F - Matteo Mancosu (11/26/18 - out of contract)
GK - Maxime Crepeau (12/9/18 - traded to Vancouver)
D - Chris Duvall (12/17/18 - traded to Houston)
M/F - Alejandro Silva (1/7/19 - transferred to Olimpia)
D - Michael Petrasso (1/20/19 - mutual contract termination)
GK - James Pantemis (1/20/19 - loaned to Ottawa Fury)
D - Thomas Meilleur-Giguere (1/20/19 - loaned to Ottawa Fury)
M - Jeisson Vargas (2/8/19 - loaned to Universidad Catolica)
That’s a lot of names on the “out” list, though not a ton of production. The loss of Alejandro Silva will hurt, but pretty much everyone else was either a bit player or someone expected to contribute but who fell so far short that they weren’t worth bringing back for 2019 (looking at you, Mancosu and Vargas). Chris Duvall and Rod Fanni played a lot and were decent, but should be replaceable.
D - Daniel Kinumbe (11/16/18 - Homegrown)
M/D - Clement Bayiha (11/16/18 - Homegrown)
F - Harry Novillo (12/5/18 - free)
F - Maxi Urruti (12/9/18 - trade from Dallas)
D - Zachary Brault-Guillard (2/5/19 - loan from Lyon)
F - Orji Okwonkwo (2/12/19 - loan from Bologna)
This list is...shorter than I would expect for a team that missed the playoffs last season. Now, maybe the Impact believe that the team that played games 16-34 last season is who will show up for 2019, but with other teams around them making moves to improve, this feels a bit light.
The big signing so far is the acquisition of Maxi Urruti. The former FC Dallas forward was acquired in exchange for $75,000 in TAM and the #10 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Urruti was a mainstay in the FC Dallas lineup the last three seasons, playing over 30 games in each and contributing 29 goals and 20 assists.
2018 was Urruti’s best season in terms of xG+xA, with 16. It also saw Urruti deployed differently, spending half the season as a pseudo-10 after the sale of Mauro Diaz. That time demonstrated Urruti’s ability as a passer and creator but was also a reminder that he’s probably still better suited to the forward role. The Impact will be hoping that Urruti can come in and be a consistent producer at forward, something they’ve lacked since the departure of Didier Drogba.
One concern with Urruti is his propensity to shoot from distance. The average distance from goal on Urruti’s shots in 2018 was 21.5 yards, 12th farthest in MLS among players with at least 75 shots attempted. Urruti also attempted 117 shots, tied with Zlatan Ibrahimovic for 3rd most in the league. His tendency to shoot from distance should fit will in Montreal, with both Saphir Taider (25.3 yards) and Ignacio Piatti (22.3 yards) in the top 10 in average distance, but it might not bode well for the Impact as a whole.
On average, MLS teams have been trending towards shooting from closer to goal in recent years. Thanks to ASA’s own Eliot McKinley, we can see the average shot distance across the league since 2011. There’s a clear league-wide trend of shooting closer to goal, with the exception of Montreal and Orlando City. Not exactly great company to be in (check out our preview of Orlando City if you want to know how poorly this worked for them in 2018). Mancosu and Amarikwa, who played most of the minutes for Montreal at center forward last year, tended to shoot much closer to goal than Urruti. While Urruti is an obvious upgrade in terms of quality, he’s unlikely to reverse Montreal’s trend of shooting from distance, which could be a problem.
Given the level of consistency in the roster, there are fewer question marks about the Impact’s first 11 going into this season. There are maybe three spots up for grabs in the starting 11.
At center back, Zakaria Diallo, Rudy Camacho, Victor Cabrera, and Jukka Raitala are battling for the two spots. Diallo and Camacho appear to be the first choice pairing so far in pre-season, but that could change.
In the midfield, Ken Krolicki spent most of the season as first choice, until the arrival of Micheal Azira. Taider and Piette appear to have their spots locked down, but that third midfield spot may be up for grabs.
The other question is who plays on the wing opposite Piatti. Harry Novillo and Orji Okwonkwo appear to be the likely candidates, with Novillo maybe the top choice for now. Both are new acquisitions, Novillo arriving on a free transfer from the Malaysian League, and Okwonkwo on loan from Bologna in Serie A. Neither has a particularly glowing goal-scoring record though, so this spot may be up for grabs for anyone who contributes in some tangible way.
It’s tough to predict what this team will do in 2019. Remi Garde is still around and there was far less turnover this offseason, and that consistency could help the Impact this season. That said, this was a team with a lot of holes in 2018 and that was objectively awful for nearly half the season. If the problems that plagued them early in 2018 rear their head again, 2019 could be another struggle.
The best case scenario for Montreal is probably that Nacho Piatti (and Bacary Sagna too, but mostly Piatti) keeps up his level of production despite being 34 years old, the midfield trio of Piette, Krolicki, and Taider takes a step to the next level, and Urruti has a career year. If that happens the Impact are probably in the top four in the East.
Worst case, age catches up with Piatti and Sagna, Urruti gets frustrated and starts launching shots from 30 yards out all game long, Ian goes on the podcast and asks again if Victor Cabrera is elite, leading to another epic meltdown, and Montreal finishes near the bottom of the table.
Best case seems more likely to me than worst case, but I think this team ends up mid-table again, probably just above that playoff line.