Ted Unkel has already refereed two United matches this season: the home loss to San Jose and the home win against the Portland Timbers. In eight games as head referee, Unkel has given five red cards and four penalties, to say nothing of having given six yellow cards in each of his last two games. Players will need to be on their best behavior on Saturday.
D Ambroise Oyongo (right knee surgery) – Out
D David Edgar (PCL, MCL tear) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head injury) – Out
D Jermaine Taylor (head injury) – Out
Montreal is a hard team to figure out. It won four straight games on the back of a flurry of goals, only to lose its last three and put playoff contention in doubt. The Impact are five points back of the last playoff berth without a game in hand over the fifth and sixth place teams. Saturday, the club will have everything to play for and will see Minnesota as a must-win, should-win affair.
As well they should. Minnesota, besides being a team riddled with weaknesses, has numerous questions about player availability. Will center back Brent Kallman be able to return from Wednesday’s injury that saw him subbed off? Is Marc Burch healthy enough to put in a full shift as a starter? How much can Christian Ramirez contribute coming off his hamstring injury? Is Kevin Molino still feeling sick? Will Francisco Calvo be ready to play after the very recent birth of his first child?
Add to these names Sam Cronin, who is a sure bet to miss Saturday’s game, and you essentially have a list of this season’s bright spots. Only Ibson and Jérôme Thiesson can be said to have been more-or-less consistently successful this year and also a certainty to be available against Montreal. That does not bode well for a Minnesota team that can struggle even with its preferred lineup on the field.
It is tough to prognosticate tactically with so many unknowns about the lineup. What can be said is that the Loons continue to look like a team unable to pick the lock with patient, possession-oriented buildup. Minnesota looks best when it is smashing the lock. Against Vancouver, a couple of strong build ups (primarily up the Loons’ right side) stood out due to how quickly they unfolded, with multiple players overlapping and without stopping to look where the next pass might be.
If Heath is seeing the same things I’m seeing — he routinely appears not to be, but he gets paid a salary to do what he does, so who’s to side with me on this? — then lineup choices need to favor speed and passing over technical ability. This means Johan Venegas needs to start the game on the bench. He has not shown hustle, he consistently overestimates his ability to take defenders on one-on-one, and he cannot lay off a one touch pass, even if it occurred to him to try. It means that Sam Nicholson likely needs to come on as a super sub and that Miguel Ibarra, with his pace and penchant for making penetrating runs (in and out of position), sees the bulk of the minutes on the left. It means rather than using a playmaker at the No. 10 position ― a type of talent Minnesota doesn’t really have — an attacking midfielder needs to be deployed to make challenging runs at the defense and create overloads alongside one of the wingers. All of this means Ibson, a box-to-box midfielder and the best set-up catalyst the team has, should be called on to play higher than normal to activate those pacey runs.
This type of approach needs to happen as a counterattack rather than just playing high-tempo, pressing soccer. Montreal’s strengths lie in its attack rather than its defense, and playing at home against a generally poor performer like Minnesota, the Impact can be expected to own possession and spend a lot of time in Minnesota’s end of the field. With so many absences among the defense, the Loons will rely heavily on their midfielders contributing on both sides of the ball and starting deep to aid their back line. Spring that counterattack, and the Loons could just surprise a few people.
Montreal will dominate possession so long as the result is still in question. The Impact need every point they can get, and are close enough to the Red Bulls in goal differential that every goal matters. Minnesota will bunker and absorb pressure as well as it can, but its track record suggests there will be at least three mental errors that lead to some white knuckle moments.
Applying heavy pressure in the attacking third and trying to get an early goal has to be on the Impact’s collective mind. Minnesota withers after allowing early goals, and Montreal needs to put the game out of reach before putting its mind on its next match.
Someone should probably ghost Ignacio Piatti all game, he’s that much of a difference maker for Montreal. Shut him down, as well as Anthony Jackson Hamel, and the Loons will find themselves breathing a little easier and under less pressure. After that, it is all about how well they spring the counter.
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Tags: Anthony Jackson Hamel, Brent Kallman, Christian Ramirez, Francisco Calvo, Ibson, Ignacio Piatti, Jerome Thiesson, Johan Venegas, Kevin Molino, Marc Burch, Match Preview, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Montreal Impact, Sam Cronin, Sam Nicholson