Thursday April 23rd, 2015

The Montreal Impact were denied Major League Soccer’s third win on Mexican soil when Oribe Peralta’s close-range, 89th-minute header lifted Club América to a 1-1 tie on Wednesday night at the Estadio Azteca. But the late goal didn’t tarnish the Impact’s achievement. The draw against Mexico’s most decorated club leaves unheralded Montreal just 90 minutes from a stunning and historic CONCACAF Champions League triumph and a berth in December's FIFA Club World Cup.

The Impact, who flew to Mexico last Thursday in order to acclimate to the climate and conditions, played the first hour of Wednesday’s finals opener with remarkable composure and took the lead on a well-constructed 16th-minute goal from midfielder Ignacio Piatti.

Fatigue set in toward the end, however, and América, the reigning Liga MX champ, produced a multitude of scoring chances. Yet the hosts finished only one, allowing a resilient Montreal to head into next week’s decider at sold-out Stade Olympique with a chance to become the first MLS club to win a continental title in 14 years.

Here are three thoughts from the first leg of the CCL finals:

Montreal’s run is amazing

The Impact have been the worst team in MLS for at least a year and a half, yet they’re now 90 minutes and a scoreless draw from achieving something the league’s consistent winners can only dream about.

Montreal has won only seven of its past 47 MLS matches. It finished dead last in 2014 and is off to a 0-2-2 to start 2015. Yet somehow, incredibly, the Impact eliminated Pachuca and LD Alajuelense from CCL play and now have América on the ropes. On paper, this is approaching 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Villanova and Buster Douglas levels of unlikelihood.

"We know we are the underdog, but we've been the underdog since the beginning of the tournament and we are still here," Montreal coach Frank Klopas told reporters this week.

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The explanation lies partly in an offseason rebuild that’s worked beyond anyone’s expectations, coupled with what Klopas admitted was some difficulty in focusing on MLS play during Montreal’s CCL run. But the Impact has earned its way to this promising point, putting more resources into the continental tournament than some MLS colleagues and benefiting from the sort of clutch performances and fortunate twists of fate that make the difference for heavy underdogs.

Montreal defeated the NASL’s FC Edmonton in the semifinal round of the Canadian Championship qualifier thanks to a penalty kick called in the seventh-minute of stoppage time. It ousted Pachuca in February’s quarterfinal on a 94th-minute goal from rookie Cameron Porter.

On Wednesday at the Azteca, it weathered a massive América onslaught and caught a break when the hosts' first-half goal was whistled out on a close offside call. Goalkeeper Evan Bush was outstanding, standing firm in the face of 28 América shots and 16 corner kicks.

Piatti took his rare scoring chance with poise, just as Porter did against Pachuca and Jack McInerney and Andrés Romero did in the decider against LDA. Center backs Laurent Ciman and Bakary Soumare were immense. When a play had to be made, someone made it. Now the Impact, seen for some time as a club without a clue, is showing others how it’s done.

Credit to Klopas

Klopas wasn’t seen as a visionary hire when he was appointed the Impact’s third head coach following the 2013 season, but the way he’s handled the roster and CCL run has been exactly that. Ciman, Soumare, Nigel Reo-Coker, Donny Toia and Dominic Oduro—all key contributors on Wednesday—were offseason acquisitions. Piatti and Dilly Duka—who smartly and subtly let Oduro’s cross pass him by, leaving Piatti to score the goal—came aboard last summer.

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The team gelled, bonds strengthened, and Klopas wisely put his players through their paces during a 17-day preseason trip in Mexico that prepped them for the subsequent quarterfinal draw in Pachuca.

He got the tactics right on Wednesday as well. Montreal knew what was coming.

“There will be possibilities on the counter, like we’ve done in the last few games,” captain Patrice Bernier told reporters. “I’m especially thinking of Pachuca, where we knew that the Mexican teams want to have the ball. They leave some space.”

He was right. América certainly was dangerous with the ball, especially when Peralta, who’s recovering from an injury, entered after halftime. But they failed to mind the Montreal counterattack, losing track of runners and leaving acres of space behind them. Oduro, who has speed to spare, started up front instead of McInerney and gave the hosts plenty to think about. He drew several fouls, even during situations when América had a numerical advantage, and set up Piatti’s goal.

Outside midfielders Duka and Romero were alert and disciplined when transitioning back to defense. The Impact always were likely to wilt a bit as the game wore on, but doing so with a one-goal cushion was critical to getting a good result.

Preparation and composure paid dividends

Klopas never played at the Azteca, and neither had an MLS team before Wednesday. But a stadium that had been a house of horrors for so many visitors (it took the U.S. national team more than 40 years to win there) failed to get the best of either the manager or his team.

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Montreal not only had to contend with the altitude and América’s attack, but with the pressure of the setting and the moment. Fans were shining laser pointers in Impact players’ faces, especially Bush's, and several refereeing decisions easily could have put the visitors off their game. The most galling occurred in the 45th minute, when América midfielder Osvaldo Martínez received only a yellow card for hauling down Oduro from behind.

At that point, it was clear Montreal would have to overcome some CONCACAF shenanigans.

And for the most part, it did. The Impact rarely seemed frustrated or flustered, even as they tired toward the end. Bush was shown a stoppage-time yellow card that could leave him suspended for the April 29 second leg (Montreal plans to appeal, but if unsuccessful, on-loan John Smits would be in line to get the call), but the Impact’s composure was intact.

They were aware of their surroundings and the situation, played it cool when there were seconds to milk from the clock—Duka was pushed off the field by an opponent during a slow substitution—and committed only 13 fouls, the same as América.

It was a remarkably poised performance and the continuation of an incredible story that will conclude next week in Quebec.

GALLERY: Career of América, Mexico legend Blanco

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