Analysis

Montreal makeover: The midseason facelift that energized the Impact

USA TODAY Sports-Bill Streicher

Montreal is gathering momentum for another postseason surge. Take a peek inside the resurgent Impact...

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The Montreal Impact’s run last season through the playoffs was based around a veteran midfield that proved ‘old’ isn’t always a bad thing.

Patrice Bernier and Marco Donadel were two key pieces in that midfield, and their veteran savvy made a partnership with a combined age of 69 an advantage instead of a hindrance. The decision to stick with that same midfield entering 2017, though, was a gamble.

A string of games with momentum rolling into the postseason is one thing. Surviving the 34-game onslaught that is the MLS regular season is another. So it felt less than surprising when, with the majority of responsibility again falling on those veterans, Montreal’s midfield at times looked stretched and overwhelmed.

It was a lot to ask, and injuries only compounded the problems. The Impact won just four of its first 15 games.

That hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, however. Montreal first got a boost with the addition of Blerim Dzemaili in May. Signing 22-year-old Samuel Piette in August was the game-changer. Piette’s ability to cover ground defensively has opened up space for the rest of the midfield to play. His ball-winning ability has also allowed the Impact’s counter-attacking style to thrive. The veterans have benefitted, and so have the team’s biggest stars.

Montreal has rattled off four consecutive wins and is right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Impact coach Mauro Biello said the midseason acquisitions were always part of the design for this season.

“The plan was always to try do what we did last year. We made changes in the summer window and we felt that it really gave the team a boost on all aspects, in terms of freshness and adding what we needed after evaluating the first six months,” Biello told FourFourTwo USA.

“We wanted to follow the same pattern. We said we won’t make many changes in January, we’ll evaluate in June and then make the additions that we need. This is a long season and we felt that finding a rhythm in the second half of the season was important. You want to be in the pack for sure, and then make certain adjustments so now the team is built to make a run.”

The plan seems to be working – again.  

It may have taken longer than Montreal preferred, but adding that bit of youth and energy to the midfield mix has made everyone a bit more effective. Players like Dzemaili and MLS MVP candidate Ignacio Piatti can stay higher up the field, while Bernier has more freedom to find the passes that can open up the game.

“Sam plugged a lot of holes we were missing,” Impact defender Chris Duvall said. “A lot of time when we were transitioning in defense, we were caught out of position, caught open. Now Sam is covering a lot of those spaces.

“If you watch our team now and watch our team at the beginning of the season, it looks like two completely different teams. Adding Dzemaili, he’s a world-class player and he changes the entire team, the way teams play against us and the whole team dynamic. It took us time to adjust to the things he brings and the players we need to around him. The group now understands each other.”

NEXT: Piatti, Dzemaili and the road ahead for Montreal