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Impact look to fix defensive lapses in second half of MLS season

MONTREAL — It was a wild first half of the Major League Soccer season marked by last-minute goals at both ends of the field, but the bottom line for the Montreal Impact is that they won only five of their 17 games.

MONTREAL — It was a wild first half of the Major League Soccer season marked by last-minute goals at both ends of the field, but the bottom line for the Montreal Impact is that they won only five of their 17 games.

So while the Impact (5-6-6) have rebounded from slow starts in the past, they have their work cut out for them to put wins together and push to make the playoffs for a third straight season.

That begins July 19, when play resumes after a two-week break in the MLS schedule. 

"We can't dwell on that," defender Daniel Lovitz said after the Impact ended the first half of the 34-game regular season with a feeble 3-1 loss in Houston. "We need to use the time to forget about it but also to look at ourselves and see what we could have done better.

"It's not rocket science what we need to do. We'll look at ourselves as a group and come back and turn it all around."

It should help that they will play seven of their next nine games at home, starting July 19 against Philadelphia. They played 10 of 17 games on the road so far.

Montreal is 4-2-1 at home and 1-4-5 away.

And management will be looking for reinforcements when the transfer window opens Saturday. The top priority became left back depth when Ambroise Oyongo's season ended with a knee injury suffered on international duty for Cameroon last month. Lovitz took his place, but then missed time with a minor injury that forced right-footed Chris Duvall to play the left side.

The Impact entered the season with optimism after reaching the Eastern Conference final last fall, where they lost in extra time to rival Toronto FC after upsetting D.C. United in a knockout game and then toppling the New York Red Bulls in their semifinal.

Didier Drogba was gone, but the aging Ivorian star had become a bench player while newcomer Matteo Mancosu excelled up front late in the season and in the playoffs.

But things haven't gone as planned. The Impact have let points slip away repeatedly thus far, often through weak defensive coverage and mental lapses.

In their second game of the season at Olympic Stadium, they wasted a 2-0 lead as Seattle scored twice in the second half. On April 29 at Saputo Stadium, they lost 2-1 to Vancouver on a late Cristian Techera goal and on May 13, Justin Meram completed a hat-trick in added time to give Columbus a 3-2 win on Montreal turf.

They led 3-2 in Orlando on June 17 only to concede the equalizer in stoppage time. A 1-0 win on May 6 against last-place D.C. was their only away victory.

But they've had thrilling moments of their own, including Anthony Jackson-Hamel's added time goal for a 2-1 home win over Atlanta, a three-goal comeback for a draw in Chicago and a late Mancosu goal to earn a 1-1 tie in Kansas City.

Like most teams, they've also had to deal with injuries. Star winger Ignacio Piatti missed four games but still leads the club with eight goals. Defender Victor Cabrera has played only seven games, while midfielder Andres Romero, who they hoped to have back healthy after missing all of last season, has played only one league match.

Off-season signing Adrian Arregui proved ineffective and was released.

On the plus side was the in-season arrival of Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili, a heady playmaker who has three goals and four assists in seven games and has become the leader of the attack. Jackson-Hamel emerged as a valid option at striker with five goals in only 10 games, with a team-leading 1.23 goals per 90 minutes played. Another academy product, 18-year-old Ballou Tabla, has shown dazzling skill.

Also, 2016 draft pick Kyle Fisher has earned regular minutes with his physical play alongside Laurent Ciman in the central defence.

With stronger team play and better focus, especially on set pieces and late in matches, the ninth-place Impact can still save their season. They are seven points behind Columbus for the sixth and final playoff spot with three games in hand.

In 2015, they were 5-7-3 at the mid-point, but rallied to make the playoffs and reach the conference semifinals.

Dzemaili will be given two weeks off to rest because he had no off-season between playing for Italian club Bologna FC and joining the Impact in May, but there will be no rest for Jackson-Hamel, captain Patrice Bernier and back-up goalie Max Crepeau, who are with the Canadian national team at the Gold Cup tournament.  

The Impact also have a friendly match July 12 in Ottawa against their USL affiliate, the Fury.

Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press