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Toronto FC players will keep eye on Montreal Impact’s Piatti Add to ...

If Ignacio Piatti is not the most-watched player on the pitch, then Toronto FC probably will not keep its remarkable playoff run in Major League Soccer going.

“We have to know where he is at all times,” TFC head coach Greg Vanney said of the Montreal Impact midfielder whose scoring led his team into the two-leg MLS Eastern Conference final, which opens next Tuesday at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

The Impact’s success comes from the counter-attack, quickly turning an opposition rush the other way. Piatti is the trigger of that counter-attack, using his anticipation to switch to offence before opponents see it coming.

So far in the playoffs, the Argentine star has three goals and three assists. That is equal in points to TFC sensation Sebastian Giovinco, who has four goals and two assists, also in three playoff games. At this point, Piatti has some bragging rights, as he scored twice in the last regular-season meeting between these teams, a 2-2 tie in Montreal on Oct. 16, although Giovinco finished the regular season with 32 points (17 goals, 15 assists) to Piatti’s 23 (17G 6A).

“One of his greatest strengths is what people don’t sometimes see, what he does before he gets the ball,” Vanney said of Piatti’s anticipation. “He’s a guy who’s very, very clever about his moments when he’s helping the team defend, when he sees the team is about to win the ball.

“He quickly transitions into an attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning. He is already transitioning, which is what he wins, fragments of time, seconds, above everybody anyone else. That’s where he gets his space, where he gets his separation from defenders. Then what we all see is his ability to take on defenders one-on-one and score.”

In three regular-season games between Montreal and Toronto, which resulted in one win for each side plus a draw, Piatti scored three goals. But Vanney used a 4-4-2 diamond formation against the Impact most of the time. TFC’s late-season success came with the switch to a three-back system, in which the Reds allowed just one goal in three playoff games.

Veteran Drew Moor is the organizer of the three backs, operating in the middle with Nick Hagglund on the left and Eriq Zavaleta on the right. Zavaleta will see the most of Piatti and claims to relish the challenge, just as he did in helping shut down New York City FC’s star striker David Villa in the Eastern Conference semi-final series.

“Piatti poses a different threat in that he’s more of a one-[versus]-one player,” Zavaleta said. “He’s not a guy who’s going to beat you with his movement behind you but more so with the ball in front of you.

“We have to get numbers around that ball and around him so he doesn’t feel comfortable in one-v-one situations. He plays wider on the field as opposed to the middle of the field.”

Part of TFC’s three-back formation is a move to a five-player midfield in order to put more defenders on an attacking player like Piatta. In that formation, Zavaleta gets help from Steven Beitashour. On the other side, Moor and Hagglund can double-team Impact striker Matteo Mancosu, who came to Montreal in mid-season, took away designated-player Didier Drogba’s job and scored three goals in the playoffs.

“I think what five in the back does is give us more numbers to be able to deal with Piatti,” Zavaleta said. “It becomes less so a one-on-one situation with [Beitashour] or myself and more so a situation where both us of can double him and not let him go inside or out. It’s just a different way to handle the situation.”

“I think we can handle it both ways but clearly [Piatti] got the better of us with four in the back this year. I think it will be a unique challenge for him to deal with five in the back.”

The Impact did not fully embrace its counterattacking style until late in the season, just like TFC’s move to a three-back formation. Success, then, will go to the team that can continue its mastery of the change.

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