You could be excused for letting out a relieved exhale at the realization that Didier Drogba will not be on the field Saturday.
Drogba has terrorized MLS since joining the Montreal Impact late last year, scoring 11 goals in 11 games at an outrageous clip of about a goal every 80 minutes. Even Sebastian Giovinco is looking at that kind of tally with awe. Despite the fact that Drogba is 38 and has been dealing with intermittent injury issues for the last few years, it would seem he’s found a soft landing pad in Montreal to see out the twilight of his career.
But Drogba’s been injured this season, and his 20-minute stint off the bench in a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas on March 19 represented his first field time of the year. Even still, Drogba made it clear he’ll be taking the grass track worn thin by several other high-profile older players by not playing on turf this season. Even if Drogba was healthy, he won’t grace Seattle’s plush new field.
So sure, there’s plenty of reason to let out that exhale. But Drogba isn’t Montreal’s biggest danger man. That title belongs to the explosive Ignacio Piatti.
Piatti largely flew under the radar in Montreal until 2015, when he broke out of his shell with a flourish. Last season, he produced nine goals and eight assists in 26 games and proved to be a slithery marker as arguably the most dangerous No. 10 in the league. While players like Diego Valeri, Javier Morales and Benny Feilhaber got most of the national praise early in the season, Piatti simply ducked his head and produced. The fact that Montreal was one of the most dangerous teams in the league over the second half of the year was largely down to him. Drogba’s goals didn’t fall from the sky, after all.
Nothing’s changed in that regard in 2016. By the third game of the year he’d already racked up three goals and two assists. Whoever’s starting up top for Montreal - and in their last match that was longtime MLS speedster Dominic Oduro - Piatti will be tucking in behind and spraying dangerous balls left and right.
He’ll undoubtedly be the focal point of the defensive unit when Montreal and Seattle clash on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field (7 p.m. PT/Q13 FOX, Univision-Seattle, ROOT Sports (Outside Seattle)/KIRO 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM).
Under Montreal coach Mauro Biello, Montreal tends to favor the 4-2-3-1 with Piatti running the show in the middle and, of late, ball shuttlers Lucas Ontivero and Harry Shipp on his flanks. At its best, that creates a manic flurry of motion around the box, where Piatti and Shipp in particular have become well-acquainted with one another in a short period of time. If Seattle can quiet those two technicians, it can feel good about its chances.
To that end, it’s worth taking a moment to push Osvaldo Alonso under a spotlight he’s richly earned so far this season.
The opposing No. 10 is almost always Alonso’s defensive task, and when he’s dialed in, Alonso tends to do something possessive with the turnover. In other words, he restarts the attack. And there’s a case to be made that he’s never been as locked in as he is right now.
Among all MLS players who’ve played at least 200 minutes this year, Alonso’s 90.9 pass success rate is third in the league, behind only Anibal Godoy and Darlington Nagbe. While the pass volume doesn’t reach similarly high levels, it’s important to note how well Alonso has done in integrating with a new regular partner in central midfield in Cristian Roldan. Alonso’s been extremely efficient in the middle even in the absence of injured Erik Friberg, and more importantly he’s been quality kick-starting attacks.
Which brings us back to the conundrum Seattle’s been flirting with for weeks now: How do you extract more goals out of this front three?
“Seriously, we need maybe more goals,” Paraguayan center forward Nelson Valdez said this week. “What I say is we have to now push as a team, and not me or (Clint) Dempsey or (Jordan) Morris, but everybody for the Seattle Sounders.”
While Valdez looks to continue anchoring the front three in the 4-3-3, Dempsey and Morris return from two very different qualifying adventures this week. Sounders fans were no doubt overjoyed to see Dempsey smash home a carom in the U.S. men’s national team’s 4-0 pasting of Guatemala. Notably, Dempsey was deployed centrally in the 4-3-3, and it was clear he enjoyed operating closer to goal. Confidence-builders like those - that was his first run of play goal this calendar year - can only help.
Morris, though, is trying to put an Olympic qualification failure against Colombia behind him. The U.S. midfield largely failed to connect with Morris throughout the 180-minute series, and the U.S. was bounced 3-2 on aggregate without Morris finding the net. In fact, his only real chance came in the first leg when he stabbed at an outside-footed golazo effort that clanged off the crossbar.
The one certainty is that the U.S. needs goals. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid noted that the full first team - at least the one that left for the international weekend healthy - is likely to play this weekend.
With three games and three losses in the rearview, the Sounders await a spark. If Alonso and Roldan can quiet Piatti and the front three finally bags that run of play goal that’s eluded them all season, we could finally be looking at the match that gets things back on track.