Friday, October 25, 2013

RNO: Analyzing the Montreal Impact's road to the playoffs

Canadian Men's National Team

Posted by Aaron Nielsen,
September 26, 2013
Aaron Nielsen

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With Toronto FC's on-the-field season all but complete for 2013, I thought I would give my attention to the Montreal Impact. After three difficult games that lead to losses, there is some concern regarding the club, having not advanced in the Champions League (despite winning 2-0 at home against C.D. Heredia) and even more concerns about making the playoffs.
Statistically Montreal should make the post-season based on their position in the table and strength of schedule. Montreal play homes games against playoff rivals New England and Philadelphia, who the Impact have done well against and are statistically projected to get four to six points from those games. Their away games are against Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, where they are projected to gain two to three points, while their final game is in Toronto. A win against TFC should give the Impact 56 points, which would keep them 3rd in the Eastern Conference, and at least seven points in the six games to guarantee a playoff spot. 
Third place is important as it would mean the Impact would get a 1st round bye and a conference semi-final home/away fixture with either Sporting KC or the New York Red Bulls. Montreal won two of three in the season series against KC, while losing two out of three to New York. They will likely be perceived as underdogs in both series, although an interesting note of the three loses against these teams is that Nesta missed two of those games. As I detailed in my preseason preview of the Impact, there has been a great dependency on Nesta. The Impact are 11 wins, 5 draws and 5 losses with a 1.38 goals against average with him in the line up, while in MLS games where he hasn't played, they have won twice, drew one and lost four games with a 1.85 goals against average.
The other dependency has been Marco Di Vaio, as his 18 goals and two assists counts for 43% of the Impacts offense. Compared to Thierry Henry's 9 goals and 8 assists amounting to 37% of the Red Bulls offense, while Sporting KC's Claudio Bieler's 10 goals and 4 assists is 33% of his club's offense. Di Vaio also has more than 1/3 of Montreal's shots, but he also had his greatest struggles against KC, where in three games he played 258 minutes, scored zero goals, had one assist and only one shot on target. He scored 2 goals on 5 shots on target in three games against New York, however, in his most dominating game against the Red Bulls where he had a goal and three shots on target, Jamison Olave didn't play.
Another key element of the Impact's success is their midfield where veterans Patrice Bernier, Justin Mapp and Davy Arnoud have demonstrated the value of proven commodities in this league. Felipe has also shown an ability to spark the offense with 5 goals and 6 assists, but one could argue his influence on the game has been less than in 2012 primarily from his ability to draw fewer fouls this season. Andres Romero has performed adequately based on his $48,000 salary, however, he's only scored 2 goals and had 5 shots on target, while new signing Hernan Bernardello has yet to make the influence as expected and been dealing with injuries.
New signing Piscu has also been injured and has yet to make his Montreal Impact debut while regulars Matteo Ferrari, Hassoun Camara, Jeb Brovsky have performed well partnered with Nesta. In net, Troy Perkins is a veteran keeper with over 185 MLS games under his belt and important playoff experience when he played for DC United. That being said, Montreal currently have the worst goals allowed per game of any team in a playoff position. One reason for this is they have allowed five penalty kicks, but interestingly enough, they committed the least fouls in the league - almost 100 less than Toronto. One issue is they have been prone to counter attacks, especially when trailing, which the Impact need to be aware of in the playoffs as they will be playing a two-leg aggregate series during the first two rounds. 
Through all of this, Montreal's biggest concern approaching the playoffs is their lack of bench depth. The main issue is support up front where statistically Daniele Paponi has provided the most offense with 2 goals and 1 assist, although the team is under .500 when he plays with 5 wins, 7 losses and 3 draws. Sanna Nyassi, who was an asset in 2012 with 6 goals only has one this season, while Collen Warner, Andrea Pisanu, Andrew Wenger, Blake Smith and Karl Ouimette, based on the lack of minutes, don't show much trust from the coach. This might be a huge blow in Montreal's playoff success as post-season games come quickly, where a club could be required to play as many as four games in ten days.
At the beginning of the season I thought the Impact would struggle to make the playoffs, however by team/player performance they have done as I expected and it's been the struggles of DC United, Chicago and Houston that has allowed them to be in the position they are in now. I think the Impact have done very well, which Toronto can learn from, in creating a key MLS core while the higher profile players have performed well when healthy.
The question for Montreal heading into October and possibly even November is do they have enough to win the seven or eight more games needed to lift an MLS championship? Even if they don't, from a sports fan living in Toronto I would dream for just the opportunity.

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