When the Montreal Impact entered the MLS in 2012 they produced the sort of record most fans would expect from a first year expansion team: they were out-scored, lost more than they won and did not earn a play-off berth. This year? With largely the same cast of characters, the Impact, who play the Union Saturday in Montreal (7:00 p.m., TCN), spent the first month-and-a-half of the 2013 campaign at or near the top of Eastern Conference. They occasionally dominated the competition. They’re also headed to the Canadian Championship tournament game in Vancouver next week. So, what’s changed?
On the surface, it appears to be a case of players simply being left alone to gel. Montreal made few serious roster changes in the off-season. Only one new acquisition (midfielder Andrea Pisanu) has managed to even marginally crack the starting line-up. The other left-overs from last season, to put it plain and simple, are just playing better together.
There are two other reasons for the recent success, however. Montreal is benefiting significantly from a roster move made last August when the Impact shipped veteran Jamaican net minder Donovan Ricketts to Portland for former U.S. National team goalie Troy Perkins. Results came immediately. Perkins allowed goals at nearly half the rate of Ricketts for the remainder of the 2012 season. This year, he hasn’t missed a beat, allowing roughly a goal a game in 10 starts. Since there is only one new addition on the back line thnis year (and that player, baby-faced 21-year old Maxim Tissot has only played in two matches), one has to assume that the main difference in the defensive third is Perkins. The Impact is also getting a come-back performance from veteran Italian forward Marco Di Vaio, whose 6 goals easily leads the club. The 36-year-old, a former stand-out with Bologna FC (24 goals in 38 games in ’08/’09), has regained his legs after a meager 5-goal campaign in 2012 and is working well with teammates like Patrice Bernier and Andrew Wenger (5 assists between them).
But get a hold of yourselves, Union fans; this year’s improved Montreal club is no L.A. Galaxy and still has plenty of worries. For one thing, they’re banged-up. Forward Davy Arnaud is out with concussion symptoms dating back to the beginning of the month. Defender Jeb Brovsky is playing, but you’ll recognize him by the bandages he’s probably still wearing over his severely broken nose. And Midfielder Felipe is back after passing some kidney stones; the assumption is that he’s feeling fine.
Meanwhile, the Impact’s recent performance, Canadian Championship series aside, has raised some eyebrows. The club is 2-2-2 in their last 6 matches after a 4-0 start. In that stretch, they’ve been shut-out twice. Of course, I should mention that they did get 3 in a win over Real Salt Lake last weekend and netted a whopping 6 against Toronto FC in a tournament game at the start of the month. The point here, however, is that they’re not exactly knocking the socks off every opponent these days.
The Union have been uneven as well, but for the most part have been playing more consistent soccer in the last five weeks than they did earlier in the season. They managed to blot-out the memory of a second half sink-hole-sized collapse against L.A. last week by sandwiching that debacle between a pair of 1-0 we-scored-when-we-had-to wins against bottom-feeder Chicago, which raised Philadelphia’s record to 5-4-3. Their 18 points is good enough for fifth-place in the MLS East and puts the Union right in the thick of the jam-packed play-off hunt.
Now they face Montreal, which sits just two points ahead of them. A road win would be enormous, since Montreal is one of the few teams in the division that holds a game-advantage over Philadelphia. The Union also sits only 3 tiny points behind second-place Kansas City, who has a tough home match on Sunday against third-place Houston. It’s pretty simple this weekend: If the Union wins, they move-up. In fact, they could end-up as high as 3rd.
THE PAST: The Union split their two meetings last season with Montreal, winning 2-1 at PPL Park on July 14, but suffering a 2-0 shut-out in Quebec three weeks later. As uneven as the Impact were last season, they still finished in 7th place, 6 points ahead of 8th position Philadelphia in the East.
McINERNEY UPDATE: I love being able to write this week-after-week: Union forward Jack McInerney is still leading the league in goals. But it’s even better this time: McInerney is now 2-goals ahead in the race, thanks to last weekend’s gorgeous header off yet another feed from the recently re-born Sebastien Le Toux. 3 players have 6, including the guy most Union fans will be rooting against the most this weekend: Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio.
MAPPING THE PAST: C’mon, seriously? You’re going to root against this guy? Former Union midfielder Justin Mapp, a charter member of two MLS expansion teams in four years (Union and Impact) appeared in 44 matches over two seasons in Philadelphia and was one of the more recognizable faces in the club’s early days. He’s fairly recognizable in Montreal now, starting most of their contests. He’ll be easy to root for. He’s logged a modest 2 goals and 2 assists in 2013. So far this season, Di Vaio is the guy you have to watch out for when you’re playing Montreal.