Montreal vs. Toronto Tactical Preview
The wait is over, the MLS Conference Finals are finally here and we couldn’t have asked for a better matchup in the eastern conference. The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC will face off in a Canadian rivalry with both clubs vying for their first ever trip to MLS Cup. Montreal, led by Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti, is a bit of a surprise making it this far after finishing 5th in the east during the regular season. Toronto on the other hand has been expected to be in this position given the high profile names on their roster and impressive form throughout 2016. Leg 1 will be played in Montreal and if the Impact hope to advance to MLS Cup, it’s vital they get a result at home.
Toronto FC has the best player in MLS on their roster, Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant is going to have his moments over the course of a two-leg series, he is just too good not to. But Montreal can attempt to limit the kind of influence he will have. When not constantly involved in the game, Giovinco has a tendency to drop deep, either in between his opponent’s defensive and midfield lines or into the midfield itself. While he is still an effective player in these deeper positions, the Italian is not the constant goal threat we are accustomed to seeing. The Impact can frustrate Giovinco early on in the match by denying him the ball. Laurent Ciman will need to be in constant communication with Donadel and the other midfielders playing in front of him to cut off passing lanes into Giovinco. If he is continuously denied service, he will get impatient and drop off to find the ball. Montreal’s next task will be to apply pressure to Giovinco in deeper positions, to not let him turn and face goal. They do not need to win the ball off him, but they must limit the number of passes that Giovinco is able to play forward.
Spread the Field:
All season we have seen Toronto FC play with significantly less width than most teams in MLS. Whether in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, the wingbacks always seem to be the ones spreading the field for Toronto. Perhaps more important than slowing down Giovinco is that Montreal finds a way to spread out Toronto’s narrow midfield. Not because Montreal is a team that attacks through the middle, in fact they are the opposite, but because it will bring Toronto out of their comfort zone from both an attacking and defensive standpoint. Piatti’s attacking movement should be based on whether or not his club is able to stretch Toronto’s midfield. If they don’t, he should stick to staying as wide as possible on his preferred left side. This should allow plenty of space for him to go one vs. one with Beitashour. If Toronto’s midfield is stretched, Piatti should look to float central at times and overload the midfield. This would allow for Piatti to pick the ball up in more dangerous, central positions with time and space while Oyongo overlaps to occupy Toronto’s stretched midfield.
Montreal is yet to trail at any point during their first three playoff games. This has allowed for them to stick to the same game plan of absorbing pressure and catching teams on the counter, and there is no reason for us to believe they will play any differently against Toronto. It‘s unclear whether or not Montreal can even compete with a top team like Toronto over two legs if they are forced to open up and abandon their defensive approach. To avoid finding out, Montreal needs to find the opening goal in this series. Getting ahead will build confidence in the team and remind Toronto of what the Impact was able to do to the Red Bulls. In a worst case scenario, where Montreal find themselves trailing to Toronto at home, the Impact could be forced to ditch their defensive approach and push forward a bit. At which point, they would be asking a lot out of their backs to deal with Giovinco, Altidore, and the rest of Toronto’s ferocious attack.
Toronto FC can go into this series expecting to have a lot of the ball. As great as that may be, Montreal has proven that they are arguably the best counter attacking team in MLS. For Toronto to really dominate this series, they are going to need to find ways to slow down the Impact’s counter. The first way to do that will be preventing Mancuso from single-handedly breaking Toronto’s pressure. Time and time again in the New York series we saw the Red Bulls apply attacking pressure onto Montreal, only for Montreal to break that pressure with a simple long ball forward into the feet of Mancuso to hold up the ball for a few seconds before his team could break out. To prevent this from happening, Toronto should stagger their central defenders, one in front of the striker and the other behind during long periods of possession in Montreal’s half. This will give Mancuso very little room to breathe and keep Montreal pinned deep in their own end for even longer periods of the game. How Toronto chooses to do this will depend on whether they line up in a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2. Either way, they should be able to find a way to use this tactic while also having cover in other defensive positions.
Foul in the Attacking Third:
The second, and simpler, way to slow down Montreal’s counter will be for Toronto to commit fouls on the Montreal players any time they lose the ball with numbers forward in the attacking third. This will slow the game down at times and allow Toronto to regain their defensive shape. Montreal has yet to prove this postseason that they have the ability to beat teams through build up play. The only caution that TFC players need to be aware of is the possibility of picking up yellow cards that may put important players in jeopardy of missing games. They don’t want Giovinco and Altidore to be the ones picking up yellow cards to prevent a counter. It needs to be the job of Cooper, Johnson, or whoever else may be in midfield and getting into the attack. It’s pretty simple, prevent Montreal’s counter, and TFC will be heavy favorites in this series.
Bradley, Altidore, and Giovinco are going to need to set the example for the rest of the squad in this series. We saw how the New York players began to lose their cool and panic as soon as things went south in the conference semifinals. Montreal can be an infuriating team to play against. Their defensive approach is difficult to break down and can make talented players very frustrated. TFC’s leaders must keep their heads and make sure their teammates do as well regardless of how the series is going. If Montreal is able to go ahead, Toronto must continue to push forward without panic. The conference final is a 180 minute match and the TFC players have to be conscious of that. As underdogs throughout the playoffs, the Impact players have already proven that they have the mentality to push through adversity. If, like the Red Bulls, Toronto finds themselves in an unexpected scenario, we will find out if they have the all-important winning mentality.