This week, I had the distinct pleasure to trade a series of three questions and answers with Benzinho of the Mount Royal Soccer blog ahead of the first ever meeting of Houston Dynamo and Impact de Montreal at the recently renovated and expanded Stade Saputo Saturday at 6 p.m. Central (either daylight or standard. I can never remember which one we're in).
Benzinho was first to the Interwaves with his accounting of his questions and my answers here, however I have also included them at the bottom of this post. I have to admit before we get started that I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Montreal, from images of Bruce Jenner back when he did something actually worth celebrating in the 1976 Summer Games to Le Grande Orange Rusty Staub, which linked the Astros and Expos back in my youth, to the modern day exploits of Inspector Armand Gamache in the novels of Louise Penny. So, just for the record, I hold no ill will to L'Impact, just a well-documented antipathy to Jesse Marsch, which dates back to his time with las chivitas.
That being said, here are the questions and answers:
Martek: Over the last three games, Montreal has lost twice on the road and won once in the re-opener of Stade Saputo (and HUGE kudos to you guys for having real grass, which is apparently beyond the technology of certain teams in the Pacific Northwest we will not name (Hint: All of them)), but the Impact came very close to drawing the losses, falling to a fluke goal against Colorado and a wide open late header from Juan Pablo Angel at Chivas. So, while the record may be 1-2-0 over the last three, it’s hard to argue that Montreal have played too badly. To what do you attribute this relatively good form? Also, as part of this, are the losses, late, near or otherwise, starting to affect the team’s mentality?
Benzinho: Love that hint!! :-) It’s all about what I call now the Jesse Marsch process that he has implemented since he took over. The Montreal Impact has always had a winning mentality in its USL/NASL days and that culture is rooted deep in the club, conveyed on a daily basis by owner and president, Joey Saputo. Combine that to Jesse Marsch’s mentality and you have a match for trust and cooperation in the club. The importance of hiring a person like Jesse Marsch was so important as the club needed to select the right players in the expansion draft to have the strongest MLS core possible. With Nick De Santis (Sporting Director) working his magic in international signings (Marco Di Vaio, Felipe Martins, Patrice Bernier, Nelson Rivas, Bernardo Corradi, Matteo Ferrari), this combination of MLS veterans, under-rated MLS young players (Collen Warner for example) and players outside the league has brought this team together quickly. The high technical level that we see on the field is a result of good talent scouting, smart signings and finding the right fit for the club and the players. This quick history of the MLS version of the team is important to explain the building blocks of the club.
The losing streak has taken its toll on the team during its endless road trip after only 1 home game (home opener vs the Chicago Fire) that saw the Impact come back home and start to taste winning games (Toronto FC, Portland Timbers and Sporting KC). The way the team has lost games was frustrating and that jinx seemed to have disappeared until the game vs. the Colorado Rapids before the international break.
The mentality of the group has been strong with leaders on the pitch in every line and on the bench. With Marsch at the helm, I am convinced that he also plays the role of Sports Psychologist on a full-time basis to convey positive messages to the team without ever forgetting what they did wrong as not to repeat those mistakes. The group mentality of this MLS new-born has been and still is crucial to the relative success in the 2012 MLS season.
Martek: Montreal currently sits eighth in the East with 15 points through 15 games with a record of 4-8-3. This is pretty much right down the line of the last three expansion teams. In 2010, Philadelphia had the exact same mark through 15 games, while in 2011, Portland sat at 5-7-3 with 18 points and Vancouver was 1-6-8 for 11 points. Of this group, only Vancouver, with 26 points, is ahead of the Impact at this time. What makes the Impact stand out from this group and its future brighter or dimmer? What players have really impressed you with their play/presence so far? And as part of this question, give me odds on the Impact pipping a playoff berth this fall?
Benzinho: The Montreal Impact have had the typical "Expansion Team" treatment, as losses were tagged as "Expansion losses" and wins were seen as.... wins. I am not sure to which recent expansion team the Impact reminds me of but I think that the Vancouver Whitecaps was the most superior MLS Expansion team that I have seen recently (after the Seattle Sounders).
As per players, Felipe Martins has been an extremely pleasant surprise, taking over a CMF spot on the team and has since upgraded as the team's playmaker since Jesse Marsch switched to a 4-2-3-1 . I am also impressed by the centerback duo of Nelson Rivas and Matteo Ferrari.
With Ferrari injured for 4-6 weeks, the pressure is on Nelson Rivas to take on sole leadership in that sector (I am not dissing the other centerbacks on the team ) but both Serie A veterans have been impeccable in physical defending, tactical awareness, smart positioning and taking care of aerial threats.
My last impressive performance is not really a surprise: Patrice Bernier. Coming back to the Impact after 10 years in Europe (Germany, Norway and Denmark), the veteran midfielder has been an added bonus to the team as per leadership and play on the field. I wrote about his signing with the Impact and you can read it here. He has been an important addition to the team and his last performance against the Seattle Sounders had him nominated MLS Player Of the Week.
Odds to make it to the playoffs: 35-45% of making it to the promised land. The Montreal Impact will still be in playoff contention by August-September.
Martek: The Brian Ching situation clearly is a major subtext of this game, at least for fans. To what extent does it, if any, motivate the Impact to do well against Houston in particular, as opposed to any other MLS Eastern Division opponent? Also, this situation made Jesse Marsch, rightly or wrongly, persona non grata around here. Are there any ill feelings up there towards Ching or the Dynamo in how the matter was handled from beginning to end?
Benzinho: Ching-Gate, Ching-Drama... There will be some animosity and sarcasm and "ill feelings" (did my vocabulary just got better thanks to you or what?) towards the Houston Dynamo and Brian Ching. Jesse Marsch did the best move for his team and I sincerely believe that he wanted Brian Ching to play for the team. Now, did the gamble work? With a 1st round pick (Brian Ching should be playing 20+ games this season), it’s not that bad of a deal when you look back, but the expectations to get a MLS-caliber player in return were maybe a bit too high. I didn't expect Andre Hainault but something more than just a pick.
The big dislike from Montreal Impact fans was the way Houston Dynamo and Dominic Kinnear blamed the Montreal Impact for selecting Brian Ching. In a cut-throat league where every move can make out or break you, the Impact couldn't have done otherwise to either get an excellent striker or something substantial in return.
At the end, let's just say that the Montreal Impact Remember
Je Me Souviens
And here are the three questions Benzinho posted for me on the Mount Royal blog, as well as my attempts at answers. I encourage to comment on these over there as well. They're very nice and won't bite, though they might answer in French.:
1. With so much praise for the Houston Dynamo and having so many highly touted players, is the Houston Dynamo one of the best MLS teams on paper but the standings does not show it yet? If you could summarize the team`s philosophy and beliefs on the pitch, how would you describe to a new MLS fan?
Martek: Good on paper and mediocre on the field is one interpretation of the Dynamo, though perhaps an oversimplification. Head coachDominic Kinnear has over the years put together a strict philosophy of no frills, simple football that, in its reliance on role players fitting in to produce a product far greater than the sum of its parts, has been quite effective.
The Houston Dynamo line up in a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, and as long as Kinnear is around, that's what they will always do. The formation is interpreted by traditionally having a lock-down defensive unit and active wide play. The fullbacks link up to the wingers, who provide crosses into the box, exploiting the space left over as the opposing defense is pulled out of position. The approach is built on maintaining possession and building from the back. It is rare indeed that Dynamo attack down Route 1, and if they do, it would mean the opposing defenses are having their way with us.
That being said, the Dynamo offense has traditionally worked best when the central attacking midfielder is a highly creative individual, such as Dwayne De Rosario in 2006-08 and then Stuart Holden in 2009. Without this, defenses can sit on the wings, as it were, and service will get denied to the forwards. Dynamo's biggest offensive problems in the past three years have come from a lack of fluency in the CAM role and a deficiency on the right. This was obviated some last year by a career year from Brad Davis on the left wing. Sports traditionally is dominated by the southpaws, and this was certainly true with Davis last year. A natural left-footer, his delivery on set pieces and devastating through balls led him to lead the league by far in assists in 2011 and indeed Dynamo's loss in MLS Cup can be attributed in large part, though certainly not entirely, to Davis' absence.
The thing is that Dynamo have had an above average (for MLS) amount of players serving on national teams. And with the exceptions of De Rosario and Holden, these have not been superstars, but rather role players whose presence on a role-player-heavy, highly successful roster has put them in good stead. In this I'm thinking of Geoff Cameron, Brian Ching, Ricardo Clark, Eddie Robinson and Jermaine Taylor.
2. The Montreal Impact's biggest strengths has been the midfield led by Felipe Martins. Brad Davis seems to be the Dynamo leader in the midfield. How would you see the midfield matchup between both team: on a technical level? physicality? ball possession?
Also how is the Brian Ching - Will Bruin duo working out ?
On June 30 at home against Philadelphia, Dynamo will debut its new designated player Oscar Boniek Garcia, a right-sided winger who will finally (so goes the plan) fill the void left by Brian Mullan's exit in 2010. Until then, as noted above, Brad Davis goes, so goes the Houston Dynamo midfield, but with some exceptions. The most notable has been the emergence of Jamaican Je-Vaughn Watson in the CAM role. Watson was known throughout 2011 and early 2012 as the player we all here in Orange-land loved to hate. A whirling dervish of activity, but with little brains and even fewer through balls and set-ups that you must have from a CAM. However, in the last few weeks, Watson is finally showing the form that Dominic Kinnear (and precious few others) felt confident he would produce. Against Toronto Wednesday night, Watson was inserted in the 57th minute. In the first 56 minutes, the Orange offense was disjointed, anemic and easily dispossessed. The Reds were playing us off the pitch, which was as amazing to see as much as it must be for those not there about which to read.
Then came Watson's insertion. He lit a fire in the entire offense, for perhaps the first time completely meriting the No. 10 shirt he wears. Suddenly, the offense was winning and maintaining possession in dangerous positions. The team was playing with an aggression and fire that had been lacking. This continued when Brian Ching came on for Macoumba Kandji a few minutes later. And this goes to your second question there.
Will Bruin co-led the team with five goals last season, in a group that included one other forward (Ching), two defenders (Cameron and Bobby Boswell) and a midfielder (Davis). When he notched his late brace to rescue the point against TFC, he had scored his seventh and eighth, and third in the last two games. The Bruin-Ching partnership has been all Bruin on the scoresheet, and the sophomore is showing signs of getting even better. Ching is the inspirational heart of the Dynamo, the talismanic Orange. This year, he has done well in holding the ball in dangerous spots, playing with his back to goal and occupying central defenders. The one thing he has not done has been scoring, with just one to his name, a no-misser at Columbus, fed by Bruin. His work has really opened up space for Bruin, though. Like with so many older veterans, you just know that Ching will be mostly silent but good for a break-out game here and there that reminds you why he was so good, and how we all here wish he still was. A common thought down here is that Ching's game will come against Montreal after the events of the offseason.
Both Bruin and Ching have tremendous work rates, however, the main thing lacking from the forward tandem is speed. The aggressive Bruin is sneaky quick, but sneaky quick is not pace. And Ching's sneaky quick days are well in the past. Speedy defenders give Ching fits, regularly beating him to loose balls and catching up to him if he gets behind the line. This is not so true with Bruin, though. The pair is strong in the air, a must-have in a team that relies so much on delivery from the wings (and from Davis in particular).
Ching has been spelled so far this year mainly by Macoumba Kandji, who is taller, rangier and pacier, but lacking in the finishing department. Kandji all too often gets stuck with the ball between his feet. He is also strong in the air, but, unlike Ching, he is faster. The Kandji-Bruin pairing, though, has not been as effective, and certainly was lacking against TFC.
3. The Houston Dynamo has played very few games compared to the other teams in the Eastern Conference before the opening of the BBVA Compass Stadium. Was that an advantage to look at what the other teams have done and go from there?
The games in hand issue is almost a non-starter at this point as Dynamo have played 14 games, only one less than the Impact and two less than the teams who have played the most. Not only that, but Toronto and the Union have each only played 12 at this point, so they're the ones who might stand to benefit, or would if they weren't so woefully down in the table. If it has any long-term impact it will be in the slightly larger number of home games down the stretch of a long season as opposed to other playoff-contenders.
That being said, it is always an advantage to have some additional data to examine when putting together a game plan. Though I would argue not much of one. I mean, the Impact have played 15 to our 14. If Montreal had played one less game at this point, would Dynamo have a disadvantage when it comes to scouting you guys? I doubt it. After you play a certain amount of games, form matters more than data points.