Not often discussed in Vancouver is what a justification the Montreal – Philadelphia game was for Martin Rennie’s tactics. The Impact hammered the Union, going up a leisurely 3-1 in the first half and plinking home a couple more goals while Philadelphia went all-out trying to get back into it, winning 5-3 in an utterly one-sided affair.
It made Rennie look brilliant. The Union and the Whitecaps are both basically respectable teams; I think Vancouver just has the legs on Philadelphia but it’s hardly clear. Philadelphia ran with Montreal at Stade Saputo and got smoked. Vancouver sat back, tried to absorb pressure, and succeeded. Not just in terms of the scoreline but in shots as well.
When the Whitecaps limited Montreal to two shots on target last Wednesday, that was the fewest shots the Impact managed at home since June 27, 2012 against Toronto FC. It wasn’t just that Montreal was shooting inaccurately, though that helped: their ten shots directed was the fewest at home since September 22 since March 16 (also Toronto; what is it with Impact shooters and Canadian teams?) and one of only four such games in their MLS history (including Voyageurs Cup). It was a first-class defensive performance in Montreal, one which was achieved entirely without Lee Young-pyo or Jun Marques Davidson, resting them and others up for a Portland game that weekend they should have won.
Teams which try to slug it out with the Impact at Stade Saputo come to bad ends. Real Salt Lake played a good game and got unlucky; the rest were meh at best going back to late 2012. Had the Whitecaps opened the offense and gone for the vital away goal the odds were against them (Montreal’s home record in games with 9 or more combined SoG since June 2012: 7W-1D-2L, losses both flukes, wins over New York, San Jose, Toronto, New York again, Chicago, fluke over Salt Lake, and Philadelphia). Obviously a 1-1 draw would have been good, a fluke victory fantastic, but more likely the Whitecaps would have lost 1-0 or 2-1 and come home in trouble. If you can choose between a 30% chance of a good result and a probability of a very-nearly-as-good result, I’d go for the latter. So did Martin Rennie.
(Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. This brings me about to a minor nit-pick. In the Canadian Championship the away goals rule still applies in extra time. So let’s say Vancouver and Montreal draw 0-0 after 90 minutes Wednesday. They go to extra time, each team scores once, Montreal wins 1-1 aet. This seems stupid to me, as it gives an advantage to the team playing away in the second leg. Montreal may get thirty “extra” minutes for their goals to be worth more Wednesday than Vancouver could at Stade Saputo. It’s unbalanced. We had the same problem a couple of years ago when Ali Gerba nearly won it for Montreal by tying it. This advantage is needless and easily dispensed with by stating that the away goals rule does not apply in extra time. Like the Rain Game, it seems like a minor issue until it decides a championship.)
On Twitter this morning I was musing about the Montreal Impact’s percentages. Now that Troy Perkins got ventilated by Philadelphia on the weekend there’s nothing really outrageous. However, all their percentages are just a hair above last year’s mean. For example, they have 42.75% of their shots directed landing on target (2012 MLS average 34.44%), 33.90% of their shots on target becoming goals (2012 MLS 29.76%), and a save percentage of 73.08% (2012 MLS 70.24%). It’s not a lot and some is doubtless skill (hello Marco di Vaio). But some of that is luck, and while none of the numbers are individually outrageous it’s all a few goals here and there making the Impact look just a little bit better than they are.
I think this may show up most on the road. So far the Impact are a damned good road team in 2013: a win at Portland and a commendable draw at San Jose gives them two Cup-winning road results against west coast teams who are better than the Whitecaps. But in Portland the Impact got 66.67% of their shots directed on target (fuck off) and in San Jose they managed 83.33% (fuck off!!!). Neither Portland nor San Jose obviously undercount shots directed by teams visiting their stadiums: those numbers are probably approximately legit, and indicate that for whatever reason in those big wins Montreal was shooting more accurately than it is possible to maintain. Again, Montreal is a good team, they play well away, they will be a stiff test for Vancouver, they just don’t play as well as their impressive record would suggest.
Vancouver’s big advantage will be in fatigue. As has abundantly been discussed, the Impact played at home on Saturday whereas the Whitecaps had an off week. The Impact are traveling from Montreal to Vancouver; there are plenty of direct commercial flights, annoyingly, but that’s still three time zones worth of jet lag. The Whitecaps will, of course, have been home and comfortable for almost two weeks by game time. This is not a decisive advantage (again, the Impact did well in one test of travel-and-short-rest this year) but it’s another factor in the Whitecaps’ favour.
On Saturday the Impact ran their best horses into the ground. Bernier, Nesta, Felipe, and Ferrari all did the 90 and are all key players who are aging, fresh off injury, perpetually faintly unfit, or all three. Di Vaio went 85 minutes. Brovsky did 77 minutes with his face smashed in like a chocolate orange. That’s a tough turnaround for these players both physically and psychologically. Imagine Nesta, 37 years old, having spent most of his career on Serie A’s hallowed turfs, just recovered from a groin injury, and facing both the physical barrier of big minutes twice in a week and the psychological problem with artificial turf. I almost expect him not to play.
Those better versed in soccer psychology than I may be able to predict whether we’ll see the Whitecaps go other the way: overprepare, get wind-up because of the long period to look at one massive challenge, particularly straight off a hardly-relaxing Portland draw. I’m sure if the Whitecaps do lose, somebody will make this point after the fact. Soccer psychologists are a lot like message board doctors.
My prediction in last Wednesday’s Two Fat Bastards was Vancouver 2, Montreal 1. I’ve seen nothing since that makes me change my mind. The Whitecaps should have a slight advantage. They’re better-rested. They’re at home. Montreal and Vancouver have identical SoG/90 differentials so far this year of +0.636 and their differentials have been in the same range for the past month. They’ve both played six home games and five on the road. In skill terms they are extraordinarily evenly matched, to a degree that makes me want to lie down with a gin and tonic and a cold towel on my forehead. So home field and long rest should prove decisive for Vancouver, unless of course they don’t. And there are two Quebec linesmen for Wednesday (Belleau and Gamache); what will that mean? Probably nothing, unless of course it does. No result, other than a blowout, would be an upset worthy of the name. Montreal winning by a couple, Vancouver winning by a couple, a close game, away goals, penalties… if you’re betting on this game you are a moron.
This is shaping up to be a hell of a thing.
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “National Appointments 2013.” CanadaSoccer.com. Accessed May 27, 2013. http://www.canadasoccer.com/national-appointments-s15309.