Like a soccer field -- which can be sliced into defensive, middle, and attacking thirds – an MLS regular season lends itself to division by three.
The first third of a season refines and tests what has been instilled by preseason training and games. The middle third is usually pockmarked by international callups, the All-Star break and a 30-day transfer window, so while making necessary adjustments teams are just grinding out whatever points they can to set up a solid push through the crucial final portion.Winner of just six league games in 2014, the Montreal Impact had hoped to power through the middle third of the MLS schedule, once the stress of its run to the Concacaf Champions League final had faded. Unfortunately, the remarkable cup run that took Montreal past Pachuca and Alajuelense didn’t readily convert to league success against Philadelphia and D.C. United. (Both teams beat the Impact at Stade Saputo in August, during which Montreal failed to win any of its four home games.)
Record: 8-11-4. Position: 7th in Eastern Conference.
Home (6 games): 9/5 CHI 9/19 NE 9/23 CHI 9/26 DC 10/10 COL 10/25 TOR.
Away (5 games): 9/12 LA 9/16 SJ 10/3 ORL 10/7 NY 10/17 NE.
Key match: 9/19 NE
Sharing responsibility for the change are owner Joey Saputo, technical director Adam Braz and vice-president of soccer operations Richard Legendre. “Professional sports is all about results,” Legendre told the Montreal Gazette. “The recent results, especially those in the second third of the season, forced us to make this decision.”
This time, Biello is the fourth head coach in the team’s MLS history, which is only in its fourth season. Former U.S. international Jesse Marsch lasted just one season despite winning 12 games with an expansion team in 2012. Disputes with several of the Impact’s foreign players prompted the jettisoning of Marsch and the hiring of Schallibaum, a former Swiss international who had played and coached in his native country for 25 years and speaks five languages. Unfortunately, his command of North American soccer was scant.
Schallibaum, too, lasted just one season, during which Montreal fell off the top of the Eastern Conference and barely squeaked into the wild-card game, which is lost emphatically, 3-0, to Houston. Four times he ran afoul of Commissioner Don Garber, and four times he was suspended for conduct and comments critical of the league and referees.
A lack of knowledge about MLS and reluctance to exploit its myriad mechanisms were detriments team management hoped to overcome by hiring Klopas, a native of Greece who had played professionally in Europe before closing out his career with Kansas City and Chicago. He joined the Fire staff as technical director in 2008 and in 2011 replaced Juan Carlos Osorio as head coach. His record in charge, 39-29-23, was more than respectable, but after reaching the playoffs in 2012 Chicago fell desperately short in 2013 when it lost the goal-differential tiebreaker to Montreal and dropped out of the playoff tier.
The Impact hired Klopas, who last season steered Montreal through the Concacaf group phase despite its dismal league performance. And so it has continued this season; the Impact can occasionally conjure up a strong display, but week-to-week it cannot sustain a level consistently good enough to accrue points. A bleak 3-6-2 record in the last 11 games has been repeatedly cited as sufficient cause to make a change at this time.
Since the trade of Jack McInerney to Columbus in early August, the Impact has relied on the blazingly fast yet maddeningly erratic Dominic Oduro as a lone striker. Klopas traded McInerney partly to make room for Didier Drogba, whose explosive strength will ideally serve as a focal point of a potent array of attackers: playmaker Ignacio Piatti and another newcomer, Johan Venegas, as well as Andres Romero, Oduro -- who can play wide as well as up top -- or Justin Mapp, whose long absence due to a fractured arm is another reason the offense has sputtered.
Mapp, who has logged eight assists in a season four times in his career, including the last two seasons for Montreal, showed everyone what the Impact have been missing for the five and half months he’s been sidelined against Toronto FC on Saturday.
The left-sided midfielder has played a lot of the time on the right since going to Montreal in the Expansion Draft held prior to the 2012 season, and in the 68th minute he clipped the ball through the right channel that bounced perfectly for Oduro, who controlled it impeccably with his first touch and then -- as he is wont to do -- drove it into the goalkeeper.
Oduro, who earlier had missed a great chance by beating the goalkeeper but then shooting wide, did get a goal six minutes after failing to put away Mapp’s pass. Once again, Montreal had come close yet fallen short, and a few hours after the final whistle a phone call ended one era and started another.
In a perfect world, or at least one with a few more games left in the regular season, Klopas would have been able to pick and choose from the players he recently added and those he’d decided to keep. He never got the chance to start Drogba at all, nor to use him in tandem with Venegas and a fit Mapp and whatever combination he preferred from the likes of Romero, Piatti and Dilly Duka. A toe injury has limited Drogba to 31 minutes of action.
Belgian defender Lauren Ciman, acquired during the last offseason, has blossomed into one of the league’s top newcomers of 2015. Yet Klopas seldom found the right mix of central midfielders who could keep the middle secure and link up with the attack. Marco Donadel, Callum Mallace, Nigel Reo-Coker, Eric Alexander and Patrice Bernier were rotated in and out of the lineup with varying results and effectiveness.
It’s not hard to envision a scenario by which Montreal, despite its struggles, sneaks into the playoffs. It is 8-11-4 (28 points) and bunched with four other teams in a battle for sixth place currently occupied by Orlando City. It trails the Lions by just one point with four games in hand.
Doing the math on the future as well as the past points out how crucial the Montreal top brass regard making the playoffs. Losing out to an expansion team, either OCSC or New York City FC, or fellow stragglers Philadelphia or Chicago would be a great disgrace.
Rather than supporting Klopas and the decisions he made to launch a final push in the final third of the season, Impact brass regarded the middle third as sufficient evidence to shake things up yet again.
Finishing below .500 is seldom cause for celebration, but if Montreal does that and still makes the playoffs, decisions about what this team is trying to be and where it's going can be deferred, albeit briefly.