Wednesday April 29th, 2015

The magic of a cup run stays with you. The grind of the league is where livelihoods and reputations are earned and lost, sure. But the cup run—the streak of do-or-die results that catapults the unlikely or unheralded toward glory—that’s the stuff of legend.

Over the course of a season, the cream typically rises. But in 90 minutes, as Montreal Impact midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker said this week as he prepared for Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League decider, “anything is possible.” Any team, regardless of probability or pedigree, can go on a cup run. But not many do. It’s accessible yet elusive, and that’s a big part of the romance.

Another is that cup runs can come out of nowhere. Reo-Coker’s contribution to Montreal’s stunning surge to the CCL final, which featured wins over Pachuca and LD Alajuelense and last week’s riveting 1-1 draw with Club América at the Estadio Azteca, brings to mind his adventure with England's West Ham United nine years ago.

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The Hammers were far from a title favorite when they opened their 2006 FA Cup campaign at second-tier Norwich City. Newly-promoted West Ham entered that game on a 0-5-1 Premier League skid. But a 2-1 triumph at Carrow Road sent the Londoners on their way in the cup. A subsequent five-game EPL win streak helped cement survival. And in mid-May, a revitalized West Ham found itself in the FA Cup final for the first time in 26 years. Reo-Coker remembers it well.

Few things in sports are as captivating as the crescendo of a cup run.

“The FA Cup is a cup known for giant killers. For me, that kind of sticks in my mentality and its something to pass down to the boys now in the dressing room,” said Reo-Coker, who captained West Ham in that 2006 final against reigning European champion Liverpool. “It’s experiences like that that tell the guys that anything and everything is possible.”

Three years of MLS mediocrity, along with a healthy dose of misery, could have left the Impact forgetting that anything and everything was possible. But the club's technical director Adam Braz, like Reo-Coker, believes in the transformative power of the cup run. The Montreal native was a defender on the Impact squad that, as a member of the second-tier USL First Division, earned a 1-1 draw at Toronto FC that secured the 2008 Canadian Championship. The Impact then went 3-1-2 in CCL group play—good enough for second place in a quartet that included eventual-winner Atlante and Honduran power Olimpia. Four MLS entrants went a combined 2-9-5 in CCL play that season, while minor-league Montreal qualified for the quarterfinals. There, they came within minutes of upsetting Santos Laguna.

“That whole tournament, we were the clear underdogs and no one really expected anything of us,” said Braz. “Everyone was all-in and we wanted to prove everyone wrong and show that we were a good team, even if we were second division at that time. We had good players, good characters, and we were extremely strong and united.”

Three years later, Montreal was in MLS.

“We ended up advancing [to the CCL quarters] and everyone was just buzzing in preseason,” Braz recalled. “The city was buzzing. We played in front of 55,000 [in the first leg], which was just an unbelievable moment for myself, being a hometown guy, and for the organization. It was like we were on the map, the North American map, thanks to that game.”

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On Wednesday night there will be 61,000 fans at the Stade Olympique. There, the Montreal Impact—a team without any of the big-name stars who now populate MLS, a team that’s won only of seven of its past 47 league games—will vie for the continental title against five-time champion América. A Montreal win or a scoreless draw would seal a berth in December’s FIFA Club World Cup, end MLS’ Champions League futility, and set the cup-run standard in North America.

D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy won CONCACAF titles when winning three home games was the only requirement. Real Salt Lake, a bit more than a year removed from an MLS championship, advanced to the 2011 CCL final with knockout-stage wins over MLS and Costa Rican opposition.

LISTEN: Planet Fútbol Podcast on CCL, UCL, more

None compares to Montreal’s path, which has included a pair of draws on Mexican soil, five away goals and an unprecedented two knockout-round triumphs over Latin American opposition. There were also the typical CONCACAF shenanigans; projectiles thrown from hostile away crowds and questionable officiating. There was also the atypical. Alajuelense was sanctioned after fans subjected Montreal’s Dominic Oduro to racist abuse.

“They threw ice cubes, beer, old trainers,” Reo-Coker said. “We complained to the referee that [fans] were throwing stuff and his response was, ‘This is South American football. Get used to it.'”

But in response, there was a level of poise, confidence and clutch one might expect from seasoned champions—not from journeymen like Dilly Duka, Cameron Porter, and Evan Bush or newcomers like Ignacio Piatti and Laurent Ciman. And not from coach Frank Klopas, whose hiring was questioned by those who saw no playoff victories and two playoff misses during his three seasons managing the Chicago Fire.

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But its players and coaches like that who make for the most memorable of cup runs. Klopas and Braz set out over the winter to remake the team, fill the locker room with more agreeable personalities and add experience and hunger to the spine. Klopas’ 4-2-3-1 is well-suited for the more deliberate, possession-oriented opposition found in Latin America. Montreal has been well organized, smart and efficient on the counter and was able to withstand injuries to Justin Mapp and Porter with the sort of depth that Braz believes eventually will give Klopas “selection headaches.”

Absent the suspended Bush for Wednesday’s finale, Braz reached out to the NASL’s Indy Eleven and engineered the Monday transfer of Kristian Nicht, a former goalkeeper of the year in USL Pro and Bundesliga 2.

Cup runs require covering all the bases. And they require commitment. MLS clubs are hamstrung by the league’s roster restrictions and salary budget (CCL participants are granted extra funds), along with the timing of the knockout stage, which kicks off during the U.S./Canadian preseason. Those are legitimate reasons, if not excuses, for the years of futility. But they weren’t reasons to concede, as far as Montreal was concerned. There are lessons to be found in a cup run.

“I certainly believed in learning from mistakes and seeing how you can do things better,” Braz said when asked about the quarterfinal loss to Santos in 2009. “I told myself, if I was ever in position to be able to influence and make certain decisions related to preparation, I would. We got our preparation wrong leading into the Santos game and that’s what we got spot on since the beginning this time. We’ve paid attention to every single detail possible.”

That Impact squad spent the weekend before the quarterfinal decider in Houston, where it played a what turned out to be a rather “chippy and rough” friendly against the Dynamo. Braz hurt his groin, and the team left for Mexico “with an overall mood that went from high to kind of lowish, when it shouldn’t have.”

This year, Braz, Klopas and Impact owner Joey Saputo took no chances and spared no expense. They spent 17 days in Mexico, getting used to the climate and altitude ahead of the quarterfinal opener against Pachuca, then another week in Mexico City leading into last week’s meeting with América. The latter trip alone cost the club some $245,000.

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“When you’re in the quarterfinal stage, it’s about the preparation and the belief and an understanding of the importance of what this competition means,” Braz said. “I think it seems like the way teams have looked at this competition in the past, more like it was a foregone conclusion a Mexican team would win it and that’s just the way it is, but hopefully we’ve shown them otherwise.”

That’s the message Montreal hopes to send on Wednesday. It can be done. It’s possible to aim higher, even for a club trying to pull itself from the depths. With investment, commitment and an attention to detail—along with a few fortunate bounces—MLS clubs can win the CONCACAF Champions League. And for Montreal, which had its flirtation with the map in 2009 but then lost its way a bit, a more permanent place on the global soccer landscape awaits. A win on Wednesday would alter perception. It would invigorate and inspire. It can be easy and convenient to ignore a mediocre team in a Francophone, foreign (for most MLS fans) city. But it’s impossible to ignore a cup run like this one.

“We want to be on the map and we want to be considered a top-tier club in North American, but we understand we have to earn it as well,” Braz said. “We understand the exposure in the U.S. is less for us relative to other teams in the league, but this has not only been great for our organization and our city and Canada, but I think it’s been great for MLS and U.S. soccer as well.”

That’s the magic of a cup run.

“It’s a terrific opportunity to make history. It’s a terrific opportunity to shine,” Reo-Coker said. “You never forget playing in an FA Cup final, even though it didn’t go our way, because of the history behind that competition and for me, I’d never take anything back. I still look back at that final as one of the great finals in history, and now to have the history of the CONCACAF Champions League, I want to be a part of history by winning it. We want to be remembered in this city forever as the first team to represent MLS in the world club championship. There can’t be any better motivation than to remembered in history.”

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