Ignacio Piatti was, at one time, the projected 2016 MLS MVP. After three goals and two assists in the first couple games of the season — both wins — Piatti was the leading candidate for the award, and it's not hard to see why. He was the best player on the so-called "team to beat" in Eastern Conference, and with Didier Drogba nursing old age and a fear of artificial turf, Piatti was a perennial GOTW winner and producing star scorer on a good team that didn't have its main goal-scoring star. That's a formula for brief March success.
That is now long gone, and while Piatti still deserves to be in the conversation — he made my midseason best XI — he has pretty much been shuttered out as the Impact went from the March's hip thing to an Eastern Conference afterthought, even if they remain in third with games in hand. They've won exactly twice in their past nine MLS games, making for an abysmal 2-6-1 record in that span. They haven't been taking the points they need — three draws in five home games isn't good — and they will likely suffer for it later on in the season.
The Impact have slowed down considerably, despite their still-high position in the conference. Drogba is playing more often and Piatti remains one of the better wingers in MLS, but they can't find the results that they need. However, they should be fine for the rest of the season, because this dry spell was initiated more by injuries and the like than it was by systematic flaws.
They've seen a number of top players miss significant time: Drogba has only started ten games this year, reigning Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman represented Belgium at the Euros, meaning he missed four games in May, June and July, Italian midfielder Marco Donadel, 33, has played less than Drogba this season, starting full back Donny Toia missed the entirety of April, May and June, and Eric Alexander was sidelined for six games prior to the international break. Piatti can't do it all himself.
The continued absence of Donadel and the extended adjustment period of offseason acquisition Harry Shipp mean that the Impact are still struggling to create chances from the midfield, instead relying on players like Callum Mallace and Patrice Bernier to spray the ball to the wings. Sometimes the constant crosses that ensue generate goals, like they did against New England a couple weeks ago, but most of the time, they don't, as Montreal rank second to last in the league in xGF, according to American Soccer Analysis.
Mauro Biello has to fix that. But really, they should be alright later in the season, as it's been the crucial absences that are killing them right now. And they're still third in the Eastern Conference, so it can't be all bad.
The New Look
The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers play each other for the first time this season, on national TV of course, and it's not the kind of matchup we were expecting going in. Neither currently hold a playoff spot — the Sounders are barely out of last place — and it's possible that even with a Timbers win, this game won't get either team past the red line. Seattle have especially struggled this season, scoring the least amount of goals in the Western Conference. The defending champs have failed to live up to expectations as well, spending most of the season outside of the playoffs.
For the Sounders, fortunes may be changing, if only a little bit. They creamed FC Dallas's B-team at home in mid-week, scoring five goals to get them out of the conference cellar and overtake the Fire in the total goals race, putting them at second to last instead of last. Clint Dempsey returned — although a red card will rule him out against Portland — and Jordan Morris added a goal to his growing rookie tally.
The Timbers didn't beat anyone 5-0 recently, but they may have found a new lineup that could propel them forward in the clogged standings.
Caleb Porter decided to try out a 4-4-2, with Fanendo Adi and Jack McInerney starting up top, against the Impact in mid-week, and while they only came out with a 1-1 draw, it looked like it could be a viable option in the future.
Having two solid goal-scoring options up top — a classic No. 9 and a poacher — gives them more opportunities to send balls into the box and test defenses with incisive runs. The goals will come faster, and Adi will have more help up top.
And defenses won't like it:
Both strikers are wide open in the box, and while the play was called back for an Adi foul, it was emblematic of the pressure it can put on backlines.
There are flaws, however. It likely forces Darlington Nagbe back out to the wing — his best position is central — and it gives them more of a disadvantage in the midfield. It can work for this team, though, so we'll see if Porter decides to use it again against their bitter rivals.