The Houston Dynamo wear orange, and they're playing a home playoff game on Halloween.
I try to avoid superstition, narrative and conventional wisdom, but this simply does not look good for the Montreal Impact. Pretty much everything seems to have aligned against them.
A couple of tactical points to keep in mind heading into tonight's Knockout Round match (8:30 pm ET; NBCSN, TSN/RDS2 in Canada, MLS Live):
Get the ball to Boniek in the final third
The Dynamo are a much more adventurous attacking team than they're given credit for, leading the league in big chances created while placing top three in chances created from open play. And no, they're not from crosses or counterattacks -- Houston were seventh in possession at 51.4 percent, and ninth in open-play crosses, below the likes of Portland, New York and LA.
So I don't think Houston like to play an ugly, regressive brand of soccer. But they can be forced into it a bit more readily than other top teams (I'm going to allow the Dynamo to wear that mantle until they really, honestly prove they're not worthy of it) by getting bottled up in the middle of the field. That's how smart coaches have stymied them all year.
Check out this passing graph from the second Montreal vs. Houston match of the season, which was a 5-0 Impact annihilation up at Stade Saputo:
And here's the final third passing graph from their meeting a month later, a 1-0 Dynamo win that wasn't as close as the scoreline indicated:
The vast majority of Houston's play in the drubbing came from way out wide -- especially the play of the wingers. In the Dynamo win, the wide play was left to Kofi Sarkodie (No. 8) and Corey Ashe (No. 26), the overlapping fullbacks.
Brad Davis (No. 11) and Boniek Garcia (No. 27) were either pushed to the touchline, or eliminated almost entirely in the loss. In the win, both players got their touches more central, better positioned to combine rather than send in hopeful crosses.
Garcia, in particular, was ubiquitous in that 1-0 win. He's a multi-dimensional threat in that final third, and more valuable than most neutrals realize -- when he started in 2013, the Dynamo collected points at a Supporters' Shield-winning rate.
Impact need forward thrust from the central midfield
Things are bad in Montreal right now. They've lost six of their last eight, and have been blanked in four of their last five. Since late June they are 5-10-5, picking up 20 of the 60 points on offer, and getting shut out eight times in the process.
But they did make the playoffs:
The answer now seems simple: Add another forward, go for the 4-4-2 and throw caution to the wind.
Problem is, the Impact have been a defensive sieve when they've deviated away from that 4-2-3-1 (even the 4-1-4-1 they used early in the season has been scrapped because of defensive frailties). The backline lacks mobility, which means they need the extra coverage a second deep-lying midfielder adds. Playing the 4-4-2 is a non-starter for this team.
But there's also a problem with the 4-2-3-1: Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello are too similar, preferring to sit deep and spray the ball. Neither pushes forward himself, and as a result Montreal have become predictable (all those shutouts I mentioned?).
There needs to be a box-to-box option next to whichever of the two (probably Bernardello) starts, someone who can make those late, third runs like Will Johnson does for Portland, or like Ricardo Clark has shown an aptitude for with Houston.
Davy Arnaud is probably the safest, smartest bet. He's free to do the job since he'll no longer have to deputise at right back, as Jeb Brovsky's going to be a boss and play on that broken toe.
Nonetheless, I'm going to put in a word for Andrew Wenger as a box-to-box midfielder here. Playing him in central midfield would be something close to an insane toss of the dice, as he hasn't really done that job since his time at Duke.
But Wenger is skillful, smart, a clever passer and an absolutely dominant physical presence for a team that's lacked one all year (and he's also not a forward -- time to put the notion that he is to bed). He won't solve the whole thing himself, but he'll do a better job of pulling defenders away from the likes of Marco Di Vaio, Felipe and Justin Mapp, and can do so at pace.
He's also an X-factor that the Dynamo likely wouldn't have planned for. And given current form, and playoff precedent, the Impact need every little bit of help they can scrape together.