Montreal Impact’s Missed Opportunity

Montreal Impact could’ve pulled off a dual punch in the Eastern Conference this year way back last December. All they had to do was select Andy Gruenebaum from the Columbus Crew in the 2011 Expansion Draft.

When the protected lists for each team were released ahead of the Expansion Draft, I came up with my choices for Montreal that I thought would be a great combination of experienced veterans, prospective youth, and under-rated players that would provide a great balance of skill for a backbone of a solid roster. Andy Gruenebaum was on that list.

Instead, Montreal’s sole pick from Columbus was Josh Gardner, who has proven to be a mediocre acquisition on the field, registering a measly 450 minutes with zero goals and zero assists in five games played. They also chose to sign two of their prior stalwarts between the pipes:  Evan Bush and Greg Sutton. Bush assisted the Impact during their final NASL season by boosting the team into a playoff spot. Sutton was a long-time Montreal keeper that was more than happy to get a club after an abysmal season in New York. Montreal then opted to trade for 2010 Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts from the LA Galaxy. Ricketts was picked for what he accomplished with the 2011 MLS Cup Champions and Supporter’s Shield winner’s — despite suffering a hand injury a quarter of the way through the season, he posted a 7-3-4 record with only 11 goals against. Not surprisingly, Bush and Sutton have seen limited game time this year as Ricketts has taken the mantle of starting keeper rather easily.

Unfortunately for both Montreal fans and Mr. Ricketts, the Impact’s #1 has seen a sudden slip in form from the two prior years. The reason for this, I believe, is because of the lack of a consistent, quality back line in Montreal. Ricketts benefited from an all-star back four in LA:  Sean Franklin, AJ Delagarza, Omar Gonzalez, and Todd Dunivant. This unit only conceded a league-leading 28 goals in 2011. Contrast this to the Impact’s revolving door of defenders:  Matteo Ferrari, Nelson Rivas, Shavar Thomas, Zarek Valentine, Calum Mallace, and now Alessandro Nesta and Dennis Iapichino. Through 24 games so far in 2012, Montreal’s motley crew of defenders plus goalkeeper have allowed 43 goals, good for dead last in the league. For a squad that was originally intended to be “defensively oriented”, Jesse Marsch’s Impact definitely aren’t living up to their expectations. And, specifically, neither is Donovan Ricketts.
Conclusion on Ricketts:  without a truly all-star defensive core standing in front of him, he’s just not as good as he seemed.

Enter Gruenebaum. After serving as backup to Will Hesmer since 2007, Gruenebaum has finally gotten his chance to prove he’s starting caliber. Hesmer was side-lined early in 2011 after a shoulder injury in the 2010 playoffs ruled him out to open the season. Similarly, off-season surgery has kept him out the entire 2012 season, and Gruenebaum has stepped up to the plate in full force.

Logging almost half of his total career minutes so far this season, Gruenebaum has raised his stats exponentially. You can see all his stats for yourself here. On top of this stellar progression of performance, there was plenty of talk and controversy about why he wasn’t named an all-star to play against Chelsea last Wednesday. Dan Kennedy made a better case, I suppose, but Columbus looks equally as dismal as the Goats in 2012. The one bright spot for either team being in front of net.

Take a look at Columbus’ version of the defensive revolving door:  Eric Gehrig, Julius James, Carlos Mendes, Chad Marshall, Sebastian Miranda, Nemanja Vukovic, and Josh Williams. None of these players have played less than 900 minutes through 19 games this season with the exceptions of Mendes, Gehrig, and James, the last of which was ruled absent because of extended injury for much of 2012. Mendes is seeing the usual reduced minutes that accompany the end of one’s career. And Gehrig is a bench player that is usually seen in midfield. All this to say that Columbus has been equally or arguably more dependent upon a collage of defenders to get the job done.

Consider that the Crew are also serving up the lowest goals against in the league with 20, and you can see how a make-shift back line coupled with a quality keeper can keep a team in the running for the MLS Playoffs.

Time to play Devil’s Advocate:  what if Marsch and Company were to have selected Andy Gruenebaum instead of Josh Gardner from Columbus? Let’s hypothesize.

Obviously, it’s foolish to think that an individual players’ stats can simply trade over to another team. That is not what I’m purporting here. There is entirely way too much uncertainty to make that assumption. But the stats sheet and performance of both teams and their keepers is all we have to go on, so I will take the risk of making that leap.

Let’s assume that his stats do carry over to Montreal. Seeing as how Montreal have played five more games so far than Columbus, this is not going to be able to be a direct comparison. Again, this is only a prediction with no real way of knowing for certain. Gruenebaum’s record is 8-7-4 with Columbus. If we take the 20 goals conceded by Columbus and combine them with the 25 goals scored by Montreal in their first 19 games, we see that already there’s a decent contrast in improvement with Gruenebaum in net. A +5 goal differential gains a much better chance for position in standings than an even differential (which Columbus currently has). Moreover, I think that the evidence for the lax defensive units of both Montreal and Columbus could be enough to conclude (with a fair amount of confidence) that Gruenebaum between the pipes for the Impact would’ve paid dividends for the team.

But, here’s the second, and even bigger punch that Montreal could’ve dealt to Columbus:  with Hesmer out for the season, and Gruenebaum plying his trade in Quebec, the Crew would be forced to rely on newly-signed-for-2012 Matt Lampson, a rookie goalkeeper that was signed as a home-grown player. The 22 year old might’ve been able to break out in his inaugural year with the Crew, judging by his stats at Ohio State over 56 games. But this is even more uncertain than Gruenebaum being able to produce the same results in Montreal instead of Columbus.

With the Crew apparently needing to rely on an untested rookie in goal, is there little doubt that they would find themselves lower in the standings at this point in the year? Sure, they might’ve taken the initiative to trade for another veteran keeper (Donovan Ricketts even!), but that surely would’ve also closed some doors to bring in quality field players like Jairo Arrieta, Olman Vargas, or Milovan Mirosevic; all players who have contributed to the success of the Crew thus far.

Of course, had Ricketts not been traded to Montreal, Bruce Arena wouldn’t have had to rely on back-up keepers Brian Perk and Bill Gaudette for almost half of this season as Josh Saunders was out due to drug rehab. Who knows how the Galaxy would’ve faired earlier in the season with Ricketts in goal, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that goalkeeping was their issue. Again, a shaky back four with young center back’s and almost the same number of players making appearances might have doomed Ricketts to the same fate he’s currently living out.

You can see how changing a seemingly small decision could’ve sent a huge ripple effect through the league and the rosters of multiple teams. Again, this isn’t meant to assume that this is exactly how things would’ve played out. Perhaps Matt Lampson would’ve turned out to be a prodigy in goal; or Gruenebaum would’ve gotten injured and left Montreal to rely on Greg Sutton for a huge chunk of games; or that Ricketts would’ve remained high in form by staying in LA. But the question is a begging one:  what if?

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