Ahead of tomorrow’s game with the Montreal Impact, I’m here once again to bring you a little insider information on Orlando City’s foes for the third match of the season. This week saw me traveling to the great white north to meet with a shadowy figure in the ruins of an old Zamboni factory (Canada stuff!). That shadowy figure was Paul Vance, the managing editor of Mount Royal Soccer, and he was gracious enough to give me a very in-depth idea of the current state of the Impact.
From what you’ve seen through two games, what do you believe is the strongest area of the field for Montreal this season?
Paul Vance: Probably the defense. Unlike last year with three center backs injured and one traded just prior to the big kickoff, it’s a lot more stable this time around. The defense, in front of the most-improved goalkeeper in MLS, Evan Bush, has performed well in its first two road games this season. Former France European Championship-winning goalkeeper Joel Bats gets the credit for Bush’s improvement.
The back four is one of experience with former Arsenal and Manchester City right back Bacary Sagna on the right flank, and newly USMNT-capped Daniel Lovitz on the left. Sagna, now 36, arrived last summer from Serie A side Benevento, and has been a calming influence on the right side. He also links up well going forward and, despite advancing years, brings much experience and a presence to the squad. Lovitz has played his way from Impact trialist to the USMNT in the space of three years. His improvement is a marked one, and he’s another who has benefited from working with a highly experienced coaching team.
The center back pairing is a new one. Former French Ligue 2 player Zakaria Diallo was one of the center backs injured in preseason in 2018, the snapping of an Achilles tendon keeping him out for the whole season. He’s now established as the number one central defender at the club. The question is, who partners him? Now, there are options, when before the cupboard was bare. Finnish international Jukka Raitala, coming back from injury and who can also play in his more accustomed left back role, is one. Add to that Rudy Camacho, who arrived from Beveren-Waas (Belgium) amidst the crisis last year, is another, but the man currently starting alongside Diallo is experienced warrior Victor Cabrera, now entering his fifth season as a Montreal Impact player. The rugged Argentinian has dovetailed well with the more cultured Diallo. The chemistry is good and they appear to complement each other well. The others may have to wait to get their chance. In front of the defense the Impact has the protective shield of Samuel Piette. In road games, Ugandan Michael Azira is also preferred in midfield to more attacking options.
Saphir Taïder has certainly hit the ground running this year. With two goals and an assist he’s been involved in all of Montreal’s goals so far. Do you think he’ll continue to be one of the Impact’s big guns this year?
PV: The Algerian international midfielder had a good season last year. We’d probably have seen an even more effective Taider in 2018, but for the fact the Impact for the first third of the season were unbalanced and in disarray. Consequently there was probably too much asked of the player, who tried manfully to plug defensive gaps, while at the same time endeavored to get into the opposition box to help a relatively blunt attack (Piatti excepted, of course).
So, Taider’s start to the season does not come as that much of a surprise. In a more settled and organized side he has more freedom (and energy) in a creative sense to cause problems for the opposition, as we’ve seen from the first two road games. Saphir is certainly one of the key players in the Impact team. He’s an automatic choice as can be deduced from him starting every single game but one since the beginning of last season. The one game missed was due to suspension. Big things are indeed expected from the 27-year-old this season.
While Taïder is firing on all cylinders, no Montreal striker has scored a goal yet. Obviously it’s only two games in but is that a worry for you or do you expect goals to start flowing soon?
PV: You’re right in suggesting that none of the Impact strikers have been on target this season, following a trend carried over from 2018. However, the main source of goals since the Didier Drogba days has been Ignacio Piatti, with 50 in the last three seasons, and already off the mark this term.
New signing from FC Dallas, Maxi Urruti, has never been prolific. However, the hard-working forward is likely to weigh in with double figures this season, despite not yet hitting the target in the first two MLS games. He will act as a foil, and provide plenty of industry. Remember, France had a striker in the recent World Cup, Olivier Giroud, who failed to score in the tournament but was never left out of the starting lineup. Despite cultural connections, I’m not comparing the Montreal Impact to France, but that’s the type of striker Remi Garde sees when looking at Urruti. He’s strong, can hold up the play, and bring others in. It is also fair to say that he’s not so far had the best of service, with the Impact creating only a handful of chances over its first 180 MLS minutes in 2019.
Orji Okwonkwo has arrived on loan from Bologna. He plays wide right, has started both games so far, and it’s fair to say the jury remains out, while allowing him time to settle into Montreal life. Okwonkwo would not have started those first two games had Harry Novillo been fit. Novillo, a Frenchman who played under Garde at Olympique Lyonnais, has a slight hamstring pull, and his MLS debut is expected sooner rather than later. It could well be against Orlando City, as the current prognosis is positive. A bit of an unknown quantity (but not to Garde), he’s had spells in French, Australian, and Turkish football and a brief stint in the Malaysian league before his surprise arrival in Montreal.
I would say goal-power is a concern, but it’s a little hard to judge, since strategy is different on the road to what it would be at Stade Saputo, and we’re not going to see a home performance until round seven!
Are there any injuries/suspensions that will keep players unavailable for selection, and what is your projected Montreal starting lineup?
PV: No suspensions. No injuries that I’ve heard of yet, apart from Novillo referred to above, but they are making noises about him playing against Orlando. (No starting lineup prediction provided).
Thanks very much to Paul for the detailed insight and updates on Montreal. Vamos Orlando!