Analysis

Montreal Impact 4, D.C. United 2: How Impact ran riot at RFK to advance

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Montreal, for all the turmoil that surrounded it, is moving on in the MLS Cup Playoffs at the expense of D.C. United. Paul Tenorio explains why: 

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D.C. United was one of the hottest teams in MLS heading into the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. The Montreal Impact was seemingly being pulled down in the midst of turmoil.

But it’s Major League Soccer, and it’s the playoffs. Cue the mayhem. The Impact marched into RFK Stadium and won 4-2 on Saturday.

Nothing went as predicted except for the standout play of Ignacio Piatti, a player who was an MVP contender for much of the season. United lost the central midfield match-up. It couldn’t find Patrick Mullins in dangerous spots. The back line had maybe its worst game of the season. On the other end, the Impact looked stronger in the wake of Didier Drogba’s absence – not weaker.

Here are three takeaways from the Impact’s win – which sets up a very intriguing conference semifinal match-up between Montreal and the New York Red Bulls.

Piatti is the difference

It was no secret that Piatti needed to be the spark for Montreal if the Impact hoped for a win on the road. The match-up fell favorably for the Argentine, too. Piatti was left in space and 1-on-1 too often in the first half, and he was often isolated against Nick DeLeon, a converted midfielder. Eventually, he made United pay.

Piatti’s gorgeous pass set up the Impact’s second goal, which all but cemented Montreal’s road win. The Impact was then able to sit in, defend and counter, the team’s preferred style with a front line of Piatti, Dominic Oduro and Matteo Mancosu.

Piatti’s influence on the game was evident from the start. He got on the ball in dangerous areas of the field and with too much space. It gave the rest of the Impact confidence and allowed them to make those dangerous runs in the box, and Mancosu had one of his best games of the season.

With no Drogba on the field, this Montreal team will run through Piatti – and that’s a good thing.

United struggles mightily

There were numerous problems for D.C. United on Thursday night.

The back line looked unorganized and wholly overmatched. It gave up too much room on set pieces, which led to the opening goal. It allowed way too much space to dangerous players – Piatti on the second goal and Mancosu on the third goal had unacceptable cushions. There were also major problems in midfield. United’s central midfielders were nonexistent on the field, a surprising area to lose the game considering the older, slower midfield the Impact preferred late in the season.

It was an all-around flat game from a team that finished the season on such a high note, going six unbeaten before losing the regular-season finale while resting some players.. And there’s no easy way to diagnose this loss. Should Ben Olsen not have rested his starters last week? Did it lose momentum? Should he have risked starting players who were working back from injury, namely Marcelo Sarvas and Lamar Neagle?

United built this team and its system around the idea of making a deep run in the playoffs. Instead, D.C. got embarrassed at home and became the first home team to lose in the knockout stage of the MLS playoffs since 2012. And the 4-0 score line felt more fair before United’s two late goals.

It will surely lead to more soul-searching in the offseason for United.

No Drogba, no problems?

The biggest question in Montreal going into the playoffs was whether the Drogba drama would cause the Impact to head into the offseason early.

The answer came back quite clearly on Thursday night.

Montreal was a better team without Drogba in the starting lineup late in the year. It’s what led to the drama in the first place, and it’s why Mauro Biello deserves credit for sticking to his stance.

The performance on Thursday night certainly made it look as if Montreal has rallied around the idea that it can rise above the Drogba drama. The Impact turned in one of its best games of the season and there was some validation in Biello’s choices when Mancosu scored two goals. And now the question lingers: Could Drogba be around for conference semifinals?

If Montreal carries this performance over to the next round, they have a shot to knock off the top seed in the East.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.