Lloyd Barker Solving midfield disarray is Impact”s top priority

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There was a pocket of Montreal Impact supporters who suggested it was time to press the panic button after the team began the season winless through five games. I suspect the same sentiment applies after the Impact suffered two straight losses in their last two home games. Anyone who follows Major League Soccer knows the importance of winning games on home soil.

The 3-2 loss against the Columbus Crew last Saturday was the result of the Impact’s underwhelming play in the first half. Coach Mauro Biello opted to start the team’s newest designated player, Blerim Dzemaili, at the expense of captain Patrice Bernier. Although I don’t support the decision to start Dzemaili after less than a week of training with the team, Biello’s decision to start Bernier on the bench proved a more telling move.

The game was decided in the middle of the pitch. Columbus strolled through the Impact’s disorganized midfield and scored two goals within 28 minutes, and took that lead to halftime. In fact, if Columbus star midfielder Federico Higuain hadn’t tried a cheeky move in the 17th minute and Justin Meram hadn’t missed a wide open header from six yards out in the 31st minute, the Impact could have been down by three or four goals in the first 30 minutes.

Biello wisely made a change to the midfield at halftime, sending on Bernier in place of the ineffective Adrian Arregui. The move changed the game significantly. Bernier’s ability to control the tempo of the game completely tilted the contest in the Impact’s favour.

After striker Dominic Oduro hit the post in the 49th minute, playmaker Ignacio Piatti pulled one back for the Impact two minutes later. But after 73 minutes, the Impact had only registered two shots on target from 20 attempts. Striker Jackson-Hamel, the league’s newest super-sub, entered in the 74th minute. It took Jackson-Hamel only three minutes to impact the game after subbing on for struggling midfielder Hernan Bernardello.

The move was an indication that Biello was instructing his troops to push extra hard for the maximum three points. The gamble failed when Meram scored his third goal of the day on a counterattack in the 91st minute and effectively ended the Impact’s comeback from two goals down.

The Impact face the prospect of losing a third straight match at home when they face the Portland Timbers on Saturday (3 p.m., TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio). The last time the Impact lost three straight was in 2014. In other words, it’s not a regular occurrence. However, the Timbers have enough offensive firepower to hurt the Impact in multiple ways.

Portland Timbers forward Fanendo Adi, left, holds off Houston Dynamo defender Leonardo (22) during the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Portland, Ore.

At 6-foot-4, Portland striker Fanendo Adi is a physical presence who can do damage in the air or with his feet. Adi has six goals in 10 starts this season, and 47 goals in 81 starts overall since 2014. The Nigerian is as reliable a striker as there is in MLS.

Montreal soccer fans are well aware of the quality of players from Argentina, given that the Impact has a pipeline of Argentines on the squad every year. But Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri is a cut above most of his countrymen in MLS, with the exception of Piatti. Valeri, 31, is a well-rounded player, who scores just as much as he assists. He has five goals and four assists in nine starts this season, and 42 goals and 46 assists in 119 starts since 2013. Much like Columbus star Higuain, Valeri floats around the field and will generally cover every patch of the grass over 90 minutes.

The Timbers will hope that U.S. international playmaker Darlington Nagbe can play a part in this contest, after missing the last game because of injury. Nagbe is a creative player who can unlock defences by dribbling or making runs in behind. Additionally, Timbers coach, Caleb Porter has the luxury of bringing in speedy Jamaican international Darren Mattocks off the bench or use him to torment the Impact’s fullbacks from the start.

Biello will likely go back with Dzemaili from the start, but has to decide which other two midfielders he’ll use to play behind the roaming Swiss international. It’s imperative that the Impact sorts out the issues in midfield against the Timbers, whose strength lies in the middle of the park.

A third straight defeat at home would sound every alarm bell associated with the team. It’s time for the troops to put in a solid 90 minutes on both ends of the pitch, and hope that it will be enough to earn all three points on Saturday.

lloydbarker11@yahoo.com

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