Friday October 28th, 2016

WASHINGTON — Didier Drogba traveled to Washington after all and was in the RFK Stadium mezzanine on Thursday evening, which his teammates probably appreciated. It’s been an awkward couple of weeks. What they needed from the famous forward was a gesture that might ease the speculation about a rift between the club and its leading celebrity. What they didn’t need were his contributions on the field. In Thursday evening’s MLS Cup knockout round game, the best players—by far—already were wearing Impact white.

Both D.C. United and Montreal benched their starters during Sundays regular-season finales, preferring rest to familiar ground. Both lost heavily. United backed into home-field advantage. The Impact didn’t need it. They pulled off an emphatic playoff smash-and-grab on Thursday in the U.S. capital, hammering United, 4-2, behind the exquisite Ignacio Piatti and Matteo Mancosu and a suffocating defense.

Both United goals came in match’s final minutes, when the outcome wasn’t in doubt.

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New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch also was in attendance Thursday. He wasn’t too far from Drogba. What he saw was a well-organized Montreal team comfortable sitting back and quick on the counter—perhaps the sort of squad that could trouble New York and its vaunted press. With or without Drogba, the Impact won’t be an easy out for the top-seeded Red Bulls in the conference semis.

Here are three thoughts from venerable RFK Stadium, where there was no home-field advantage Thursday:

Montreal played the perfect road game

It was midway through the first half, and the Impact were already employing some road-team gamesmanship. The loudest among the 12,773 fans at RFK became frustrated and began counting out the seconds as goalkeeper Evan Bush took his sweet time on a goal kick. Montreal didn’t hurry its throw-ins either.

It was, in every detail, a perfect road game—which shouldn’t come as that big of a shock from a team that acquired some knockout-round seasoning during last year’s CONCACAF Champions League run and which lost only six times this season away from Stade Saputo. Only one MLS club (LA Galaxy) suffered fewer defeats on the road.

A key component of the perfect road game recipe is an early goal, and the Impact got it in just the fourth minute. Center back Lauren Cimant scored his first of the year as he broke free from D.C. midfielder Rob Vincent and volleyed home a corner kick.

United had yielded only one goal in the first five minutes of a game this season, and that came back in April. This was a new challenge that played directly into Montreal’s hands.

Piatti, Mancosu and Oduro are so good on the counter that the Impact were able to commit all three midfielders to defense. United playmaker Luciano Acosta was harried and stifled, and chances were hard to come by as the hosts failed to find any space behind the Impact’s back four (or sometimes five). D.C. won the first-half possession battle, 55%-45%, but barely challenged Bush.

“If you give up a goal against them, you’re in trouble,” United coach Ben Olsen said afterward.

Montreal’s second goal came in the 43rd and was a backbreaker. Piatti threaded a perfect cross toward Mancosu, who ghosted behind D.C. captain Bobby Boswell and beat a helpless Bill Hamid.

It was high-class attacking soccer from talented players on a team with a plan.

D.C. was stuck in neutral

United under Olsen has been blue-collar team in a white-collar town, forced to outwork and outsmart foes while waiting for the revenue that would accompany the long-awaited new stadium. Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper built teams through trades, free agency, castoffs and spare parts and managed to grind out the results necessary to make the playoffs four of the past five seasons.

But they’re not good enough to truly contend, and that was highlighted despite the fabulous fashion in which United closed out the regular season. The phrase “Benny Ball” had come to symbolize D.C.’s gritty commitment to winning ugly, but it was abandoned this summer when Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam were acquired and Acosta was pulled back into midfield. Suddenly, United played with style. They went 6-1-6 before playing reserves in Sunday’s game at Orlando City and entered the playoffs having scored at least two goals in nine straight games. United was fun to watch, and effective.

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But at playoff pace and under playoff duress, D.C. didn’t have enough to break down Montreal. Ciman is a world-class center back, and the Impact were resolutely compact and disciplined. Something special is required to create in that environment, and Acosta—the only player on D.C.’s roster who’s consistently capable—was harassed and hounded and couldn’t find his rhythm.

What Olsen and Kasper have done under significant constraints in D.C. should be commended. They’ve gotten a lot out of a little. D.C. was ousted in the conference semis in 2014 and ’15 and couldn’t get that far this year. More is required if United (11-11-13) is to add to its receding championship tradition.

Didier Who?

That part about ending the speculation regarding Drogba—we know that’s wishful thinking. He’ll be the story for at least the next couple days as Montreal (12-11-12) prepares to host the Red Bulls in the opening leg on Sunday. But as many have pointed out this week, Drogba has not had the same impact on the Impact as he did in 2015. He does have 10 goals and six assists this year—good for second on the squad—but his presence hasn’t necessarily translated to results.

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During the regular season, Montreal was 5-8-9 with Drogba and 6-3-3 without him. It scored more goals absent Drogba and yielded fewer. Mancosu is more mobile on both sides of the ball and obviously has a good understanding with Piatti—not to mention the ability to finish. Mancosu, who joined Montreal in July, already has five goals and five assists. He had two goals and an assist on Thursday. 

Good MLS teams often are better than the sum of their parts. D.C. certainly has been that this year. And Montreal appears to be that without Drogba. The Impact said this week that a bad back prevented the Ivorian from playing Thursday. If it heals by Sunday, tactics and form may be the reason he sits against New York.

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