Nick Sabetti: The Montreal Impact’s roadmap to making the playoffs

The Montreal Impact is still in the MLS playoff race thanks to its recent run of form but it will need to be even better in its final matches if it wishes to reach the playoffs.

A month ago, the Montreal Impact’s chances of making the playoffs were practically nil, but five wins on the trot has meant that the Impact still has a chance of reaching the postseason. The task remains arduous: the Impact will need to win at least four, probably five or maybe even all six of the games that remain.

In order for the club to achieve the almost unprecedented accomplishment of making the playoffs in its first season in MLS, Jesse Marsch’s men will have to continue to do a lot of the things that has lately made them successful -- and more.

Keeping sturdy at the back

Much of the Impact’s recent success can be attributed to the team’s now impeccable defensive line. With Nelson Rivas and Matteo Ferrari returning from injury, as well as the addition of Alessandro Nesta, what had initially been the league’s worst defence has been transformed into probably the very best. The Impact has conceded only two goals in its last five games, and Ferrari told following last Saturday's game against D.C. that he’s proud of the team’s recent defensive performances.

“I’m happy because we’re letting in very few goals at the back, and for me as a defender that’s really important,” said Ferrari. “For me, championships are won by also letting in very few goals. We’re showing that now in the last five games where we only gave away two goals and one of them came on a penalty. The road is still long, but there’s certainly so much enthusiasm in the team.”

Barring unforeseen injuries between now and the end of the season, with the remarkable depth and quality Montreal now possess in defence, the Impact willl be very hard to break down and that could very well be the decisive factor that propels them into the playoffs.

Di Vaio hitting form

Montreal’s now-preferred 4-2-3-1 formation works with a loan striker up top, and many of the team’s goals this season have come from midfield, but if Di Vaio can start living up to his price tag as he’s been able to do in the side’s last two outings, the Impact’s winning streak is bound to continue.

Midfielder Patrice Bernier told reporters in training this week that he’s really starting to find a great chemistry with the Italian, as he’s starting to understand how to work off his movements.

“For the young players that are watching, Marco [Di Vaio] is an example,” said Bernier. “The way that he moves, his positioning, is impeccable. He’s a guy that moves so much on the opponent’s defensive line that he not only makes himself dangerous, but even others as well. It’s not always about trying to look to get the ball to him, sometimes it’s about trying to find players in the space that he’s been able to create with his movement.”

The fact that the Italian betting scandals are behind him certainly makes a difference. Di Vaio is now fully focused on doing well with his new side and its beginning to show.

Winning on the road

The Impact has been exceptional at home, but the team will have to start winning on the road if it is to have any chance of making the playoffs. Four of the last six games are away from home and they aren’t easy games either.

The first game is against the Columbus Crew, and the Crew has been heavily bolstered with the signings of forwards Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain. Ever since those two debuted with the team, Columbus has been in excellent form.

The Houston Dynamo is one of the toughest sides at home, as its yet to lose at BBVA Compass stadium and has already beaten the Impact 3-0 there as well. The Chicago Fire is also battling for a playoff spot and so they won’t be easy to beat either, and Toronto FC, despite having the league’s worst record, has had the better of the Impact so far this year and it surely would give everything its got to impede its rivals from achieving what TFC hasn’t yet succeeded in doing in its first six seasons: making the playoffs.

Marsch told reporters in training this week that playing on the road won’t necessitate any dramatic tactical adjustments and that he’ll only be “tweaking things a bit.” That the Impact was able to win its last away game against the New England Revolution will certainly give the team belief that it can go out and get results away from home.

Getting a little help

Unfortunately, as good as Montreal is playing at the moment, making the playoffs isn’t entirely in its own hands. With Sporting Kansas City, the New York Red Bulls and the Dynamo looking likely to make the postseason, the Impact will battle with the Chicago, Columbus, and D.C. United for the fourth and fifth playoff positions. Montreal will need these teams to lose points in their remaining games, and that’s quite likely considering the difficulty of their remaining match schedules.

Still, it will take nothing less than an extraordinary finish from the Impact to make the postseason. It’ll have undoubtedly raised some eyebrows with its recent form and Marsch will have to hope that other teams don’t figure his side out before the season ends, which might mean having to make some bold tactical decisions along the way.

Nick Sabetti covers the Montreal Impact for Canada.