The Union head north of the border to take on CF Montreal on Saturday night at the Stade Olympique, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET. The match will be streamed on Apple TV through MLS Season Pass, behind the paywall, with Blake Price and Greg Sutton on the call.
The Union have six points out of nine in the league, and are in fifth in the East. They defeated the Chicago Fire on a fortunate strike from distance from Joaquin Torres last Saturday, but put together a sound 90-minute effort to cruise past Alianza at home, 4-0, on Tuesday night to advance out of the Round of 16 in the Concacaf Champions League.
Montreal has no wins in three tries, and incriminatingly, no goals as well at the bottom of the East. More alarming tidbits courtesy of MLS: Montreal is just the fifth team in league history with no points and no goals after three games, and against Nashville, they produced the lowest xG in a game since 2014 after completing 300 passes in the opposing team’s half at 0.29.
It’s been a rough start to the Hernan Losada era after he took over from Wilfred Nancy in the offseason and saw the departures of Djorde Mihailovic, Alistair Johnston and Ismaël Kone to Europe as well as the loss of Kei Kamara to the Fire just before the season. While the midfield and backline of the squad that finished second in the East last year is largely intact, the attack is pedestrian at best.
As the radical tactical shift from Nancy’s possession-based system to Losada’s high-energy pressing has not clicked so far, it’s hard to think of a worse start around the league, save for Charlotte FC, who perhaps had more expectations. Losada can theoretically help Montreal ‘moneyball’ in MLS by developing young talent that posts strong numbers in a high-event system (like Kevin Paredes), but it will take time, if it is to work. And ultimately, his stint at DC United was an unsuccessful attempt to implement his style of play.
Despite all of that, road games are hard in MLS, and as such, the Union are +170 to win, while Montreal is +145 to win with a draw at +230. 538 has the probabilities at Philadelphia to win at 36%, Montreal to win at 37%, and draw at 27%. The betting markets are slightly more bullish on Montreal than 538, but both are in sync on the Union.
Even with the Union’s ship-righting win on Tuesday, they have just two wins in their last eight on the road in MLS, and are in the thick of a congested schedule. While the Union may rotate a bit, the fact that the Union will be missing eight or nine players at Orlando next week because of MLS’ decision to play through the international window gives Jim Curtin no obvious benefit to do so.
The other key factor here is the artificial turf at the Stade Olympique.
It was previously a matted surface on top of a concrete slab, but as noted by Jonathan Tannenwald this week, the stadium received a $250 million upgrade that includes a turf certified as “FIFA Quality Pro.” It’s still worth checking out some of the stats below about the old surface, which the Union played on last year, but it’s unlikely the new surface will have the same effect. The turf has received positive reviews from CF Montreal according to Tannenwald’s reporting.
While the overall passing distances are similar, medium and long passes were more difficult to complete, and dribbling was more prolific on the mat-like surface with wild bounces. It is worth noting that Montreal chased the Union down a goal and up a man for the last 20 minutes, and the Stade Olympique split is just one game.
It’s impossible to know how the new turf will play, but again, it should be closer to some of the other artificial surfaces in the league like in Seattle or Atlanta rather than the unique challenge of the old surface.
I’ve caught Montreal twice this year, in their match against Miami and in their most recent outing, a 2-0 loss at an organized Nashville side. While they mustered some chances chasing a deficit at Miami, they’ve totaled less than 1.0 xG in their last two matches.
The spine of the team is solid with Kamal Miller, Rudy Kamacho and Joel Waterman crewing a back three, and Victor Wenyama remains a classy distributor with enough rangy destruction to serve as a strong defensive midfielder.
There’s not a lot in attack between Aaron Herrera and Lassi Lappalainen on the wings and Sunisi Ibrahim and Romell Quioto on the front line. Quioto is a creative threat with the ball at his feet and strong finishing, but he’s not working with a lot. When Montreal do take possession into dangerous areas, there’s a noticeable lack of final-ball ability.
Keys for the Union
Despite the form and talent disparities, the Union should expect a frantic match resembling the first half against the Fire. Two teams out of three in the league so far have gone with a back three against the Union, and Montreal will make it three of four.
They’ll live with a three on two against the Union’s forwards and look to create lots of duels to win possession in dangerous areas with numerical superiorities up the field.
It’s an annoying test for the Union’s center backs, but as long as the intensity is there, they should not be troubled, just as they largely handled Chicago last time out despite the frenzied start.
With the ball, the Union will have to produce strong combinations of short passing sequences on the ground. Even if it’s not to create clear cut chances, they should want the ball in the mixer in Montreal’s own box as much as possible.
It goes without saying, but in an ugly game, set pieces will be absolutely key for the Union. They have been dangerous on them all year, and Damion Lowe broke the floodgates open against Alianza shortly after they went down to 10 men with a perfect header on a corner kick from Kai Wagner. Lowe picked up an assist on the second goal on a similar routine by nodding the ball towards Gazdag for a point-blank header at the back post.
The Union will be without star goalkeeper Andre Blake, who suffered a grade one adductor strain, but Joe Bendik is a more than capable backup. I’m sure Montreal will try to test him from distance and on their own set piece opportunities, and Bendik will have to come through.
Lastly, in this type of game, there could be prime opportunities for Daniel Gazdag to clean up loose balls in the box with smart finishes. I’d like to see him get at least three to four shots up.
I was burned picking the Union to win in Miami, and I expected a better showing against Chicago, despite the win. The win against Alianza was needed, but I think the turf will be an equalizer for a desperate Montreal side.
I think this has the makings of a frustrating 1-1 draw that won’t be any cause for panic, but rather a reflection of how tough a March Saturday at the Stade Olympique can prove to be.