In this Eastern Conference Semifinal edition of Oppo Research, we look at CF Montréal, who are in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the fifth time since joining the league in 2012, and who will host New York City FC at Stade Saputo on Sunday, October 23.
1. Wilfried Nancy is good at his job
There’s a lot of buzz connecting Wilfried Nancy to the 2022 Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year Award. No argument here: Nancy has completely transformed Montréal from a perennially underachieving squad that had a habit of finishing 18th place overall into a team that battled Philadelphia Union for the No 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with 20 wins this year.
The fact that Nancy did it with one of the smaller payrolls in MLS makes his achievement all that more impressive. He's like Philadelphia Union’s Jim Curtain, only he’s likable. Seriously, we have nothing snarky to say about Nancy and his accomplishments.
2. Nancy overloads the midfield
If games are won or lost in the middle of the field, then Nancy is taking no chances: The Montréal head coach tends to favor a 3-5-2 formation that floods the midfield with players who keep the ball moving when in possession and close down space when in recovery.
Usually, veteran midfielder Victor Wanyama is the conductor of the midfield, with Djordje Mihailovic on his left and Samuel Piette on his right, but Mihailovic has been moved to the central roll in the past – or even up top to spearhead the attack. You can understand why Wanyama is given the central role. The 31-year-old is big, and technical, and calm in possession.
Will NYCFC’s Nicolás Acevedo be tasked with marking him out of the game? He did exactly that on Monday when he successfully neutralized Inter Miami’s Alejandro Pozuelo, another big, technical, composed playmaker. But Wanyama is surrounded by a stronger midfield than what Inter Miami could field, which will put more pressure on NYCFC’s defense when Montréal have the ball.
3. Montréal is packed with Canada internationals
The Canada Men’s National Team that qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986 is built around a core of Montréal players: Alistair Johnson, Kamal Miller, Piette, and Ismaël Koné are all starters for Montréal, and will all feature when Canada plays in Qatar next month.
The bond between these players is not to be underestimated: They play together throughout the year, and have developed a band-of-brothers mentality that you can see in their play. Teamwork can be as potent as star power, and when Johnston, Piette, and Kone are together in the midfield with Wanyama and Lassi Lappalainen, they function as a unit.
4. The only two teams to outplay Montréal in 2022? NYCFC and Philadelphia
Montréal have a winning record against every team in the Eastern Conference — except NYCFC and Philadelphia. NYCFC beat Montréal 4-1 at Yankee Stadium way back in March during the before times of Ronny Deila, then drew them 0-0 at Stade Saputo in July under interim head coach Nick Cushing. That game was one of the few promising results posted during New York City’s late-summer swoon. If you recall, it was played at the height of the team’s injury woes: Keaton Parks, Alfredo Morales, and Maxime Chanot were all unavailable that hot day in Montréal.
A very different NYCFC team took the field then: Cushing now lines up NYCFC with a back three of Maxime Chanot, Alex Callens, and Thiago Martins that lock down the defense and allows the attack to be fluid and free-flowing. The Montréal players and formation in that game were more familiar: Nancy was in the final stages of fine-tuning his 3-5-2 formation. Once he found his preferred Starting XI, Montréal closed out the season with a 10-2-1 record.
5. Montréal aren't so hot at home
Montréal have a good-not-great home record that puts them in a three-way tie for seventh place in MLS. While it’s not exactly a poor showing, Montréal (9-3-5) are more like a Real Salt Lake (9-3-5) or a Seattle Sounders (9-3-5) than an NYCFC (10-4-3) or an FC Dallas (10-4-3), never mind an LAFC (13-2-2) or a Philadelphia (12-5-0).
If you want to slice and dice it another way, Montréal are a poor 2-2-4 at home against teams that made the playoffs. Those two wins came against Orlando on May 7 and FC Cincinnati on May 28.
(Full disclosure: NYCFC are an equally poor 2-2-4 on the road when playing against playoff teams, with 10 goals scored and 12 goals allowed. But that record includes the frustrating 2-3 loss to Miami and the 1-2 loss to Orlando during the team’s late-summer swoon.)
To take in a different view, Montréal are 5-3-8 in the regular season against teams that made the playoffs. NYCFC are 8-3-5.
One More Thing: About that big bell
Every time Montréal scores a goal at home, supporters clang the North Star Bell, which dates to the 1880s, measures more than five feet tall, and weighs more than 1,500 pounds. According to the Montréal Gazette, the bell has no historic ties to Montréal – it was cast in Cincinnati, and purchased in 2015 from an antique dealer in Michigan – but it is meant to evoke the many church bell towers in Quebec.
Let’s hope it remains silent on Sunday.