Didier Drogba has gotten much of the credit for helping the Montreal Impact during this recent run of good form, and rightfully so.
It has not been all Drogba, however. The Impact’s defense deserves some credit, too.
The Impact advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday by overwhelming rival Toronto FC, 3-0, at Stade Saputo in the first round of the MLS Playoffs. Much of the attention during and after the match was on the Drogba-led Impact attack and TFC’s juvenile defending, but something that was a bit overlooked was the defensive performance from the hosts.
Not only did the Impact do a good job of nullifying sure-fire MLS MVP winner Sebastian Giovinco, but they also made the U.S. Men’s National Team duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore largely nonexistent. The shutout they recorded was a just reward for how well the defenders played, and it gave the club its sixth one since the start of September.
That statistic and the recent outings put forth by the back four show how much the Impact have improved defensively since the start of the year. Juggling CONCACAF Champions League knockout-round commitments and the MLS regular season, the Impact recorded just five shutouts from March through August.
There are many reasons for the drastic change, but not having to worry about two competitions is chief among them.
“We spent too much time in the preseason talking about how we were going to defend other teams going into the Champions League. We didn’t even play one preseason game against an MLS team,” Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush told SBI earlier this week. “When you prepare for the Mexican teams or Costa Rican teams down there, it’s completely different than when you’re trying to get ready to step higher on the field and press teams and get in the league.
“I think at the start of the season we thought it would just be a switch that we were be able to flip. We did well in defending in the Champions League, and most of that was because we were sitting back and keeping the games in front of us and hitting teams on the counter. When we got into league play, we just basically said, ‘OK, we’re going to step higher on the field,’ without really having an idea of how we wanted to do that.”
It was not until after the Impact finished their Champions League campaign in late April that they won their first game and began to find success. Still, the defensive performances were not incredibly positive despite the club having very capable pieces like stout centerback Laurent Ciman and versatile fullback Ambroise Oyongo.
The real change came once September rolled round. Head coach Frank Klopas was fired on Aug. 30 and replaced by Mauro Biello, who served as a long-time member of the Impact during his playing career. Biello almost immediately instilled a new belief in the back line, and found the right combination from the players available to make it all work.
“I think Mauro helps guys to feel a little bit more confident and comfortable on the field,” said Bush. “Usually that translates to being on the ball and playing better with the ball, but it also translates to being able to make quick, reactionary decisions when you don’t have the ball and when you’re defending. I think that difference between Frank and Mauro is the biggest.”
It was not just Biello’s introduction that paved the way for the club’s defensive success, however, as Drogba, too, has played a major part since stepping on the field in September.
The 37-year-old striker has undoubtedly added much to the attack with his nose for goal and ability to create space for others, but his mere presence on the field also helps the Impact avoid much aggressiveness from opposing sides wary of giving Drogba too much room to operate. His contributions are twofold.
“When Didier started playing most games, it gives teams a guy that they have to take account of as far as they can’t leave Didier in 1-v-1 situations, they can’t push up their defensive midfielder,” said Bush. “When Jack (McInerney) was here, he was good at many things, but I don’t think anybody is going to mistake him for Drogba. Drogba has been able to help us get out and get us up the field a little bit more and not deal with as much pressure.”
Now, the Impact are looking to carry over their recent defensive form into the next round of the postseason. The club is set for a two-legged series with the Columbus Crew, and defending their stable of attacking talents will be just as key as scoring goals on the other end.
The Impact have, however, shown over the last couple of months that they are more than capable of doing that.
“It took a little while (changing the way we played) and getting a lot of the guys on the same page,” said Bush of the defense. “We were able to turn it around.”