Well, here we are again, heading into the concrete deathtrap that is the Big O to face Montreal, with a place in the Voyageurs Cup final on the line. We once again swapped questions with Sofiane Benzaza of Sb Nation's excellent Impact blog Mount Royal Soccer. After the jump, Sofiane answers my questions about how seriously the team and supporters are taking the Voyageurs Cup, why so many players seem to want to leave Montreal, and whether all the chatter about random different old Italian's coming over in the summer will actually lead to a new DP. I also answer Sofiane's questions about Aron Winter and the lesson's he's learning, if any, and what the cup means to an increasingly beleagured TFC squad. So Montreal, how you doin'?
Waking The Red: So, how's MLS treating you kids so far? Easier or harder than expected? Which players have surprised you so far negatively and positively?
Mount Royal Soccer: The beginning of the season was really rough with the first 6 games out of 8 on the road including the harsh road trip that took the Montreal Impact to Columbus, NYC and Salt Lake City. It helped to keep the group tight as a unit being crowded in airplanes, airports, buses and hotel rooms. It also generated a sense of urgency to get points as that road trop produced 0 points but some progress in their game.
This progression has been seen in different players and we can mention Justin Mapp who has always helped the team start its first half strongly and Felipe Martins, the versatile midfielder who is a box to box midfielder with underestimated offensive skills. Matteo Ferrari has been a rock in central defense, not surprising if you look at his CV but the way he upped his game in a short period of time was impressive.
On the negative side, I can maybe point to Donovan Ricketts. He has made big saves in many games and important saves to keep a lead, but sometimes disappoints with some 'blunders'. My blame towards him stops here as he is still an excellent MLS goalkeeper and he is earning his money. It`s all about managing expectations I suppose.
WTR: Brian Ching and now Mike Fucito. Why do so many players hate Montreal? Do you think one of the many random potential DP Italians that have been linked will come over in the summer?
MRS: It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside a puzzle. Brian Ching`s situation is understandable as per his love for Houston and the Houston Dynamo. I will put that episode behind me and put it in the category of lost gambles. Mike Fucito's exit was disappointing but expected after only playing 26 minutes with the 1st team. Since the 1st MLS game vs the Whitecaps, he disappeared. He was still training with the 1st team but was almost never on the 18-man roster. There is a question of competition in that role/profile with Sanna Nyassi but nothing really transpired. That episode finished with an awkward interview with MLS' podcast ExtraTime Radio in which he referred (among other factors for the fit with Montreal not working) to a language factor: go figure.
As for Italian DPs, Marco Di Vaio's name has popped up more often than not and he might be one of the next Designated Players in MLS with the Montreal Impact. The obvious Italian connection with owner Joey Saputo and Sporting Director Nick De Santis is present and I say: why not?. Let the organization use up all the connections it has to better the team organization.
One contact in sports media in Italy has not really heard any unofficial talks between Di Vaio's group and the MLS/Montreal Impact outside the regular news coming from the papers. It might be a secret that is really kept well or information that was always false. But with the Bernardo Corradi/Matteo Ferrari connection with Marco Di Vaio (via Bologna), this possibility is not that crazy.
WTR: How seriously are the supporters and team taking the Voyageurs Cup this year? If you guys want to put out a second XI and roll over for a 6-1 defeat again, we'd happily and shamelessly take that at this point. How about if we say please?
MRS: Montreal Impact supporters want trophies as fast and as many as possible. The memories of CCL quarterfinals vs Santos Laguna are still vivid in the minds of many and that event has propelled the Montreal Impact even more into the North American scene.
As for taking a dive for Toronto FC, Jesse Marsch declared, as I write this, that there will be few changes in the squad from the game against the Portland Timbers. Leading an expansion team, Jesse Marsch wants to keep the internal competition level deep and always present. With a difficult game against Sporting Kansas City on the weekend, he wants to keep the troops sharp.
Without claiming to read the mind of Jesse Marsch, like him, I do not dismiss Toronto FC as a 3rd string team that cannot make 3 consecutive passes. The CCL/Voyageurs Cup is taken seriously for the soccer aspect of it and the building of a franchise.
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MRS: As the Montreal Impact has learnt from its harsh defeats in its first 8 MLS games, do you think that Toronto FC is learning from its losses? There has been a noticeable evolution in TFC's game. Is there hope for the team evolving or will MLSE pull the plug and re-shuffle staff and players?
WTR: I go back and forth on pretty much all these questions on a regular basis. Are they learning? Yes, in a way, it certainly seems as if they're trying to learn as almost every game there's a slight tweak to the lineup of formation as if to fix what's going wrong. But also no, it seems like management isn't learning as it can definitely be argued that the constant tweaks and changes are hindering things, with the unfamiliarity and confusion leading to a lot of basic errors that have been killing off TFC in almost every game, ie Terry Dunfield's mishap for Montreal's first goal last month. The players may not be good enough, and the formation might not work out, but it wouldn't hurt to run the same players out in the same formation for a few games when possible to take away the unfamiliarity excuse.
Is there hope or will management pull the plug? I'd say there is hope, there are certainly some good signs here and there, especially when it comes to the attack which is clicking much better in the last couple of games. Part of me thinks that MLSE are ready to stay the course and get through this tough spell, and hopefully things will improve. Another part of me thinks there's no way MLSE has the patience to sit through a growing media shitstorm and supporter unrest, and unless results come quickly, they'll make a change.
MRS: Eric Avila looked great against Real Salt Lake and so did the team as TFC produced a solid performance. Is Aron Winter (from what little evidence you have) brave enough to go with the players that he evaluates being the best instead of going for the classical safe choices?
Aron Winter is very much his own man, and doesn't seem to like to have compromise pushed on him, so I think he'll continue playing this formation and style. The problem is that we're still very much trying to find out just who are the players that can play that style. He does seem pretty ruthless about making changes if he's not impressed, which sometimes doesn't help, for example in defence we've gone through many different central pairings already. Avila is someone who most people thought would be in the team to start the season, but he was nowhere to be seen for a while. He's had a couple of good performances in a row now, but i don't think anyone would have seen him starting out on the Left Wing in place of Joao Plata. It worked very well, so more than likely we'll see that again.
MRS: TFC's main problems have come a lot from the defense but those mistakes seem fixable. Is there a belief in Winter's ability to adjust to what his players can offer him?
WTR:Not really no, that seems to be the big criticism of Winter, that he's doggedly sticking to his plan and waiting for the players to adjust, rather than acknowledging that they're a bit out of their depth and making the compromises necessary to flourish within MLS with it's salary cap and the imperfect solutions that you have to come up with. His one tactical variation seems to be moving Torsten Frings back and going from 4-3-3 to a 5-4-1/3-4-3 depending on how confident he is in his defenders
MRS: Is the 2012 Amway Canadian Championship a haven of peace and familiar grounds with a great run in the CONCACAF Champions League? Can we expect a much more aggressive TFC team compared to the last time both teams played at the Big-O in MLS action?
WTR: I think everyone will be happy to get away from MLS for a couple of games, but that big 0-7 is still going to loom over proceedings and specifically over Aron Winter's head. Speculation and calls for his dismissal are getting louder, and if a week from now TFC are still winless in the league and also out of the Voyageurs Cup, then I think that will probably be it for Winter as the head coach (though I'd guess at him getting shuffled upstairs rather than outright fired). There should definitely be a more aggressive TFC team than we saw at Easter, just due to that need to win, combined with not having to fly out from Mexico like last time. I'd expect more or less a first team that's seriously trying. If that will be enough is anybody's guess.