Sunday October 30th, 2016

Matteo Mancosu continued to make Didier Drogba’s absence less of an issue for the Montreal Impact—and less of a storyline for everyone else—as the MLS Cup quarterfinals opened Sunday. The Italian veteran, who moved to Montreal over the summer, scored a gorgeous second-half goal—his third in two playoff games—to lift the Impact to a 1-0 win over New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Technically, the setback ended New York’s 20-game unbeaten streak, which dates back to early July and comprises 16 MLS games and four CONCACAF Champions League contests. But winning isn’t important in the conference semis and finals. It’s about aggregate goals, meaning the top-seeded Red Bulls (16-10-9) will head home next weekend with 90 minutes to level the two-game series.

But Montreal (13-11-12) is proving a tougher out than their .500 regular season record suggests. This is a veteran team built for knockout soccer, and New York will have its hands full next Sunday.

Here are three thoughts on Montreal’s triumph at Saputo Stadium:

This game was won in the penalty areas

Some contests are decided in midfield. This one was won by the players who came up big near goal—Mancosu and Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush. It was always going to be the case Sunday that New York would have most of the possession while Montreal, playing its second game in four days, would try to slow down the game and counter. That put a premium on the Impact’s performance near goal, and both Mancosu and Bush came through.

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Mancosu, 31, is emerging as one of MLS’s most compelling stories. The Cagliari native played in Italy’s lower divisions before making his Serie A debut with Bologna last year. Bologna’s majority shareholder just happens to be Impact owner Joey Saputo, and this summer Mancosu was acquired on loan by the MLS club. He made his debut in mid July, scored in his second appearance and then scored again in his first start, a 1-0 win over Houston in early August. He finished the regular season with three goals and four assists in 15 appearances (seven starts) and despite a six-game scoreless streak to close the regular season, he’s caught fire in the playoffs.

Mancosu scored twice in the Impact’s dominating 4-2 defeat of D.C. United in Thursday’s knockout round then gave his team the lead over New York on Sunday with a 61st-minute stunner. Fellow Italian Marco Donadel got the play started with a long ball from the right. Mancosu raced behind New York center back Damien Perrinelle and hit a vicious half volley that screamed past goalkeeper Luis Robles. It was a worthy playoff winner.

At the other end of the pitch, Bush kept New York off the scoreboard. The 30-year-old Ohioan isn’t typically mentioned as one of the league’s top goalies, but his performance Sunday certainly was top-class. He denied a breaking Bradley Wright-Phillips in the third minute, leaping to knock down a chip shot after the Golden Boot winner was played through. Three minutes later, Bush dropped to deny a dangerous cross from Alex Muyl. He then stopped Sacha Kljestan from close range in the 67th, shortly after Mancosu scored, and then stuffed a point-blank effort from Red Bulls substitute Omer Damari (who was later red carded) in stoppage time.

This is a very good result for Montreal

Sure, the Red Bulls have 90 minutes on home turf to tie the series. They need just one goal, have the second-most potent attack in MLS and haven’t lost at home since April 9. But the Impact will take some intangible advantages into the second leg as well.

One justification for the knockout-round games, in addition to the fact that MLS wants as many teams (and owners) in the playoffs as possible, is that the teams earning byes supposedly will face a tired opponent in the first/away leg. Theoretically then, the high seed would have leverage in both games.

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Impact's prior experience in challenging environments is key to their playoff success

But Montreal’s conservative style lends itself to playing games on little rest. The Impact basically attack with three players (Mancosu, Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro) while the midfield trio and back four plug passing lanes, foul when necessary and look to spring their teammates with quick passes. Montreal had only two full days rest after beating D.C., one of which was spent traveling. And it’s not a young team. Nine of the 11 starters are in their 30s.

Now, they’ll have a week to rest. The tough part is over. Montreal isn’t afraid of playing on the road. They play the sort of soccer that’s made for road games. The Impact handled themselves brilliantly last year in CCL matches in Mexico and Costa Rica and were beaten only six times away from home during the 2016 regular season. Only one MLS suffered fewer road defeats. 

Throw in the fact that New York has been a bit star-crossed at Red Bull Arena, and the tension only increases. Since 2010, when the stadium opened, the Red Bulls have lost a heartbreaking five playoff games on home turf. Last season marked the fourth time their season ended in Harrison. The pressure will most certainly be on the favorites, and that’s an ideal situation for Montreal.

There’s a bit of tarnish on the Golden Boot

With great power comes great responsibility. It’s tough to levy any criticism against Wright-Phillips, who’s establishing himself as one of the top forwards in MLS history. But the very best come through in the clutch. Wright-Phillips’ checkered playoff resume unfortunately matches his team’s and ultimately, his performance next month could have a significant impact on his legacy.

Nothing can take away from the raw numbers. He won his second golden boot this season with 24 goals. He has 68 regular season markers over the past three years, a league standard, and he tied the single-season MLS record in 2014 with 27. The Englishman is the only player in MLS history with two 20-goal seasons.

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Learning from past mistakes, Red Bulls bring their form, distinct identity into playoffs

But the playoffs have been less kind. He was on a tear in 2014 with four goals in four games, but a needless yellow card in the first leg of the conference finals against New England (he tried to prevent the Revs’ goalie from distributing the ball) ruled him out for the decider. Wright-Phillips claimed following the match that he wasn’t aware of the accumulation rules. Then last year, with New York entering the playoffs as Supporters' Shield winners, he scored just once in four games.

He had to do better Sunday at Stade Saputo. But Bush stopped that third-minute chance, and then Wright-Phillips spun a seventh-minute shot wide right. He unsuccessfully appealed for a penalty kick when Bush dove to meet a pass from Kljestan in the 29th, but had no excuses in second-half stoppage time when he failed to lift a point-blank shot over the sliding Ambroise Oyongo.

The stakes are higher in the playoffs and the standards, fair or not, are higher for players like Wright-Phillips. He’s already a Red Bulls legend. To become one at the league level, he’ll have to come through in the biggest games.

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