Colorado Rapids take a trip to Montreal on Saturday to face the team with the league's best record, Montreal Impact, in what will be a stern test given the Rapids' slump in form. Colorado are four without victory whereas their opponents from Quebec have won four of their last five. All in all, the Impact have lost only three games all season compared to the Rapids' nine and, if they win their games in hand, will sit comfortably at the top of the Supporters Shield standings.
Much of this has been down to the goal-scoring prowess of former Italy striker Marco Di Vaio who, along with Jack McInerney and Mike Magee, sits atop of the top scorers list with 10 goals, double the number of his goal tally in the 2012 campaign. Di Vaio has been supported by a midfield which has largely shared creative duties but has been led by one man in particular, Patrice Bernier, who has been key to Montreal's successes so far this season.
Marco Schallibaum typically favours a 4-4-2 formation in which one of the two central midfielders usually sits and dictates the tempo, whilst the other roams forward to join up with the front pairing. However this is pretty fluid and depending on who the opposition is could mean they become more expansive and forward-thinking. Generally, if Bernier is central in a 4-4-2 he will sit and dictate the game, looking to feed balls forward to the more advanced players including Felipe who, as seen with his goal against Houston Dynamo, likes to make runs from midfield into the box taking the opposition by surprise.
If Schallibaum sees the opposition as particularly dangerous he sometimes sacrifices a forward for a defensive midfielder who will add another body alongside the sitting creative midfielder with his purpose to screen the defence and add another layer of protection. This is unlikely to happen on Saturday seeing as Montreal are at home and the Rapids aren't exactly in a rich vein of form. It could be a weak spot which the Rapids could exploit when they do have the ball though as (assuming it is Bernier and Felipe who do start together in the centre of the park) there isn't exactly any steel in there and with the Rapids' three in middle, Colorado could overrun them in that area.
Out wide, the wingers tend to play a simple role - their remit being just to get down the sides and put the ball into areas for the front two to attack. There has been much rotation in this area for the Impact with different sorts of players being chosen depending on the opponent. Andres Romero, Andrea Pisanu and Justin Mapp have all played down the left and are all distinct players with different qualities. Given that it is possible that Marvell Wynne will play at right-back, Schallibaum will likely choose someone with more technical quality than pace as he knows they won't outdo Marvell outside.
The backline is another strength of Montreal's with an abundance of experience particularly at centre back. Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari, whose careers have been spent at the highest levels of European football, provide steadying influences at the back. Their exceptional reading of the game can most of the time make up for their lack of pace, however facing Deshorn Brown is a different prospect (assuming he learns how to finish). In terms of weaknesses, the pace of the central defenders is certainly one which the Rapids can exploit along with their lack of agility, meaning players such as Kevin Harbottle could do some damage nipping in between and around Ferrari and Nesta. Also, the left back slot, usually taken by Dennis Iapichino or Jeb Brovsky, could be exploited as it is particularly weak when considering Hassoun Camara and the Nesta/Ferrari partnership.
For the Rapids to get a result in Quebec, it is going to be an almighty struggle if they do not play on the Impact's weaknesses. Colorado need to grab hold of the centre of the park, shutting down the creative midfielders such as Bernier and Felipe, just as Columbus Crew did in their victory a couple of weeks back, as well as controlling the midfield as they have the extra man. On top of that, they need to play forward pretty quickly so that they can turn the backline and make the slower defenders chase towards their own goal as this will expose their pace. If they can get balls off to Brown or Atiba Harris over the top of the central defenders then this will be a fruitful avenue to pursue.
When they don't have the ball, Drew Moor, German Mera or whoever else plays at centre-back needs to keep their eye on Di Vaio at all times. His movement is second-to-none and is always looking, despite his lack of pace, to spring the offside trap and get in behind for a clear-cut chance. Providing the Rapids are successful in negating the midfield's creative side and they keep a lid on Di Vaio, it is possible to get a positive result in Montreal but it will be one tough task.