Analysis

Montreal's defend-and-counter proves again to be perfect postseason formula

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Montreal is not one of the best teams to enter the MLS Cup Playoffs, but its built-for-October game plan is why the Impact stand among the final four teams alive. Paul Tenorio analyzes:

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There has been a misperception about this Montreal Impact team since the end of last season that it is built around -- and reliant upon -- legendary striker Didier Drogba.

Drogba, the legendary but aging striker, was undoubtedly the catalyst last season for a team that needed something to push it through the postseason. But Montreal has never been built around Drogba, and the Impact’s stunning 3-1 aggregate upset of the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals proved as much.

Montreal’s system revolves most significantly around Ignacio Piatti, who had 17 goals and six assists this season. The Argentinian midfielder is an MVP-caliber player capable of turning a game with his individual ability. This postseason, Montreal has opted to essentially rely on that fact. More specifically, the Impact’s defend-and-counter play trusts that the match-up problems created by Piatti and the speedy Dominic Oduro will be enough to see them through the playoffs.

So far, the strategy has worked.

The underdog role

The semifinals against the Red Bulls looked like a mismatch on paper. The strength of New York in the regular season was its midfield. Jesse Marsch’s side often overwhelmed opponents with its quick press, using players like Dax McCarty, Felipe, Mike Grella and Alex Muyl. The system was built on winning the ball and quickly transitioning by finding Sacha Kljestan in between the lines, where he could run at defenders and pick out the runs of Bradley Wright-Phillips.

It worked to great effect. Kljestan (six goals, 20 assists) and Wright-Phillips (24 goals, five assists) are both finalists for MLS MVP. The Red Bulls closed the year on a 16-game unbeaten streak.

Going into a series against Montreal’s midfield, which features the aging Patrice Bernier and Marco Donadel, as well as Hernán Bernardello, it looked like New York would be able to assert its game plan and use pace and pressure to overwhelm Montreal. That didn’t happen.

Montreal asked Donadel to sit in front of its back line and hold. That eliminated the space for Kljestan to work the way he liked all season. The 37-year-old Bernier also put in work to eat up space in the midfield and keep the midfield organized defensively. It forced New York out of its comfort zone and out to the wings, and mostly kept Kljestan off the ball. Montreal didn’t have to sacrifice much offensively to do so.

Piatti key to it all

As teams pushed up the field, they did so with the risk of leaving either Piatti or Oduro in a 1-on-1 match-up on the outside. Montreal could sit deep and win the ball and release through its two most dangerous players. The form of Matteo Mancosu up top kept the center backs in place, opening up room for both players on the outside to work.

When it worked best, it was to devastating effect. Montreal’s first goal came off a goal kick where Oduro pulled defenders and switched to Piatti, who won his 1-on-1 battle to essentially end the Red Bulls’ dreams. It was another counter that sealed the deal in the final minutes.

With a counterattack so deadly, the Impact are perfectly built for a home-and-home series. Their strengths align with what is needed to go on the road and get a result. At home, Montreal can open up selectively and remain compact when needed – which will likely be the case against the attacking talent coming in the Eastern Conference finals – and still strike on the counter.

It’s a system that is possible because Piatti is so effective and so dangerous. He has three goals and an assist in three playoff games. If anyone is going to stop Montreal in this postseason, it’s going to have to find a way to stop him.

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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.