Tuesday April 21st, 2015

There have been no shenanigans so far—no overnight fire drills, no fans in the hotel hallway, no impromptu concerts on the street or in the lobby. Local media has stopped by—the Montreal Impact even conducted a small news conference on Sunday—but there’s been no intrusion or inconvenience.

“They’ve been pretty good. They leave us alone,” Montreal coach Frank Klopas said. The “craziness” foreign teams sometimes confront when preparing for big games in Latin America has been absent, he told SI.com. His club isn’t being treated like an intruder—at least not yet.

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​Klopas used words like “familiar” and “routine” when discussing Montreal’s preparation for Wednesday’s momentous CONCACAF Champions League final opener against Mexican powerhouse Club América. “Familiar” and “routine” were the goals. The unheralded Impact’s exhilarating run through the continental championship tournament has been as much about investment, priorities and preparation as it has been the squad’s poise and opportunism in the knockout stages.

Klopas, his players and Impact owner Joey Saputo have gone all-in despite the long odds, and it’s paid off. Montreal, winner of only seven of its past 47 MLS matches, has clawed its way to within two games of history. It’s already the first MLS club to win two home-and-home series over Latin American opposition in the same competition. A third will send the Impact to December’s FIFA Club World Cup and give MLS its first CONCACAF title in 14 years, its first in the CCL era and a coveted place on the global stage.

Saputo and Klopas laid the groundwork for Montreal’s run in February, when they opted to prepare for the quarterfinal opener against Pachuca with a three-game, 17-day sojourn in Mexico. The Impact spent around two weeks in the capital, training at altitude and building chemistry within a squad featuring a dozen new players. The team then traveled to Pachuca, where it earned a 2-2 tie in the quarterfinal’s first leg. Going in, MLS teams had avoided defeat in just eight of their 40 competitive matches in Mexico. The draw set the stage for rookie Cameron Porter’s stoppage-time clincher one week later in Quebec.

“We planned and prepared right and I think the players bought in and had a good mentality,” Klopas told SI.com upon the Impact’s return. “We became a team and I think, more than anything on that trip [to Mexico], we bonded as a group.”

The Impact were brilliant in a 2-0 dismantling of visiting LD Alajuelense in the first game of the CCL semis. Then, despite missing Porter (knee) and veteran playmaker Justin Mapp (elbow) with injuries, Montreal survived the return leg in Costa Rica and advanced on away goals following a 4-2 defeat.

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Composure on the road has been the key to the Impact’s success. It faced offensive onslaughts in both Pachuca and Alajuela and a very hostile crowd in the latter (goalkeeper Evan Bush was hit in the head by a coin and forward Dominic Oduro claimed he was subjected to racist abuse).

Yet it avoided folding like so many MLS predecessors and scored an impressive four road goals to boot.

When América destroyed visiting CS Herediano, 6-0, in the decisive second leg of their semifinal series, Klopas knew he needed to provide his team every advantage possible ahead of the finals. He gave his players a few days back in Montreal following last weekend’s 3-0 MLS loss to the Houston Dynamo. Then, last Thursday, a party of around 45 that included Klopas and his assistants, the players, two team administrators, two communications staffers, a videographer, a doctor and a team chef boarded a charter flight to Mexico City. 

They planned to spend six nights at the same hotel they visited in February—it’s a relatively short drive to the Estadio Azteca—and to develop the same familiarity with the altitude and conditions they enjoyed two months ago. Everything else is carefully controlled, from the players’ free time to their diets. Chef Mario Di Molfetta is closely monitoring carbs, calories and hydration, preparing every meal and snack and making sure it's beetroot juice, not beer, that’s the beverage of choice.

The trip will cost the Impact around C$300,000 ($245,600).

“That’s been the big focus with our club, even with the first trip, coming here for preseason for 17 days, bringing our own medical staff, our own chef with us, it was very important we controlled everything,” Klopas told SI.com by phone from Mexico City. “The commitment from the club went a long way—our ability to charter down here—all those little things have a huge impact and make a big different. The president, Joey, is behind us 100% and there was not really a lot of discussion.”

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Every MLS team will claim the CCL matters, but it clearly does to Montreal. The Impact were always competitive in the U.S./Canadian second tier, winning three championships, but it was the stunning run to the 2008-09 CCL quarters that put the then-USL team on the North American map.

Since joining MLS in 2012, Montreal has been known more for unmet expectations and upheaval.

There was one playoff berth (which ended terribly) and three head coaches in the first three seasons, and in January, Saputo told reporters that, “The buzz for the Impact is gone.”

Doing well in the CCL would help bring it back both at home, where fans were tired of losing and where the first-place Canadiens were embarking on a quest for a 25th Stanley Cup, and across the rest of Canada and the U.S., where it’s so easy simply to look past the French-speaking city to the north.

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Not only has Saputo invested a quarter million dollars on this trip alone, he consented to the almost-unheard-of decision to postpone the club’s Stade Saputo opener. A match that fans, sponsors and everyone associated with the club had anticipated for nearly four months—last Saturday’s game against the Chicago Fire—now will be played in September. The Impact’s April 25 meeting with the San Jose Earthquakes has been shifted to September as well.

That means Klopas and his team can focus solely on América, which was granted no such consideration by colleagues and opponents in Liga MX.

The buzz clearly is back. There are some 20 members of the Montreal media in Mexico for Wednesday’s game, and the April 29 CCL decider at Stade Olympique is already sold out (59,020 tickets).

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To ensure that final game remains meaningful, the Impact will have to survive the Azteca, where more than 100,000 fans and the reigning Mexican champion await. América’s domestic season hasn’t been up to standard. Las Águilas are 6-4-4 and coming off a surprising 4-0 home loss to Querétaro, but it remains the prohibitive favorite on Wednesday. Paced by Mexican national team star Oribe Peralta, América has scored 30 goals in only eight CCL contests.

It will be missing defenders Paolo Goltz and Ventura Alvarado, the newly minted U.S. international, through suspension, but still is stocked with domestic and South American talent.

It’s the biggest game in the history of the Montreal Impact, a club that first took the field three years before MLS kicked off, and surely the most challenging. There is no experience like the Azteca experience. Klopas never played there as a member of the U.S. national team. No MLS team has taken the field there for a competitive fixture.

Yet on Wednesday, it won’t seem entirely foreign. At least that’s the hope. Impact players now are accustomed to the warmer, thinner air. They have gone on the road against similar teams, in similar environments, and managed to get good results. They’ve seen similar styles and survived similar conditions. Now they have to do it just one more time.

“There will be possibilities on the counter, like we’ve done in the last few games,” captain Patrice Bernier told the club website. “I’m especially thinking of Pachuca, where we knew that the Mexican teams want to have the ball. They leave some space, so if you go out there and get a good result … then we can take advantage of that and finish it off at home.”

Said Klopas, “Coming here at the time we did, we felt it was more than enough to do the things we wanted to do on the field and then focus on preparing and studying the opponent … It’s been close to perfect and I think the guys are feeling really, really good and they’re energized.”

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