Monday November 7th, 2016

The Montreal Impact are a tried and tested team in cup competition. The New York Red Bulls somehow still haven’t found the formula. And that was evident Sunday afternoon in Harrison, NJ, where the underdog Impact put together a third consecutive (almost) perfect playoff performance in a 2–1 victory that eliminated top-seed New York from the MLS Cup playoffs. The Impact won the two-game Eastern Conference semifinal series, 3–1, on aggregate and will advance to the league’s final four for the first time.

Argentine forward Ignacio Piatti did the damage on the offensive end and scored both Montreal goals. The stifling Impact midfield and defense did the rest.

Here are three thoughts on a game that enhanced Montreal’s cup soccer credentials and furthered New York’s almost incomprehensible playoff misery:

This was a gut-wrenching loss for New York

Top to bottom, from the academy through the USL champion reserve squad and on to coach Jesse Marsch’s MLS team, the Red Bulls have evolved from an organization without much direction to one of the best-run on the continent. But that evolution—which has produced an effective and recognizable style of play, two Supporters Shields, three first-place finishes in the past four seasons (and four in seven) and two 2016 MLS MVP finalists—still hasn’t reversed the club’s playoff curse. And with each successive failure, each loss to a lower-seeded team and each elimination on home soil, it just gets more painful.

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New York has made the MLS playoffs in 17 of its 21 years. Only the LA Galaxy have more appearances. But LA has advanced to nine MLS Cup finals while the Red Bulls have played in only one—and that 2008 team really had no business getting that far.

Somehow, the statistics, trends and trajectory become meaningless when the Red Bulls’ playoff run begins. They entered the 2016 postseason on a 20-game unbeaten streak in all competitions and were the second-highest scoring team in the league. Bradley Wright-Phillips led MLS with 24 goals. Sacha Kljestan became only the second player in league history to hit 20 assists. The defense ranked second in the East.

Yet New York was bottled up and lost last week’s first leg to the fifth-seeded Impact, 1–0, in Montreal. The Impact took that slim lead to Red Bull Arena with a 0-7-1 record all-time in Harrison, NJ. No matter. The Red Bulls’ curse continued Sunday. Kljestan missed a 21st-minute penalty kick—goalkeeper Evan Bush made a nice save—and New York was unable to find its way through until the 77th minute of a frantic second half. Wright-Phillips did the honors on a deflected shot from close range, but it was too late by then.

New York (16-11-9) was eliminated on home turf for the fifth time since 2010, and it’s only 4-5-1 in playoff games at Red Bull Arena. In each of the past two seasons, the Red Bulls’ run ended in the conference finals. This time, they didn’t even make it that far. It’s the same old story, one that’s getting tougher to stomach as the years go by. No matter how much progress the Red Bulls make, “Metro Playoff Failure” simply won’t die.

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Ignacio Piatti is an unsung superstar

Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t an immediately-recognizable name when he joined Montreal in the summer of 2014. Piatti had never played for his native Argentina and his previous two clubs were Lecce and San Lorenzo. Or perhaps it’s because he plays in Montreal. But either way, there’s little question the 31-year-old attacker deserves more acclaim than he receives. He’s as skillful and creative a player as there is in the league, and he was spectacular on Sunday.

Montreal’s style of play demands patience from its three attackers. The Impact sit back and absorb pressure and then rely on Piatti’s skill and Dominic Odoru’s speed to unlock the opposition. Chances may come few and far between, so efficiency and ruthlessness is critical. Piatti has it to spare. His first goal Sunday was massive, as it forced New York to score three thanks to the away goals rule. And it came from almost nothing. A goal kick was flicked toward Oduro, who cut past New York’s Dax McCarty and slid the ball across to Piatti on the left. Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall was in good position, but Piatti’s change of pace left Duvall grasping. The ensuing left-footed blast confused goalkeeper Luis Robles and went in off the underside of the crossbar. It was Piatti’s second goal of the playoffs and 18th of the season.

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New York tied the game late but still trailed on aggregate when Montreal countered again in the 85th. Oduro found star substitute Didier Drogba in the middle. He slipped it to the right, where Piatti emerged on a late run and slipped a quick shot through Robles’s legs.

Montreal can focus on defending because Piatti is so lethal. He allows the system to work. The Argentine may not be a household name, but Montreal coach Mauro Biello is well aware of his value.

“Phenomenal,” Biello told ESPN after the match when asked about Piatti. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best in the league and he showed it today. These are big moments and big players show up in big moments.”

Montreal continues to follow its playoff script

It was honed on treacherous ground in Mexico and Costa Rica during last year’s stunning run to the CONCACAF Champions League finals, and now it’s part of the Impact’s DNA. Knockout soccer is different.

“You see these little details, they make the difference,” Impact captain Patrice Bernier told SI.com following Montreal’s 4–2 defeat of host D.C. United in the knockout round. “The playoffs, everybody thinks it’s going to be aesthetic. No, it’s about efficiency. It’s about making the least mistakes possible … It’s about being a bit cynical. You’ve got to be realistic. When it has to be dirty, not pretty, you kick it in Row Z.”

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The Impact (14-11-12) did make one mistake Sunday. Defender Victor Cabrera was caught in possession by New York’s Gonzalo Verón in the 20th, and Bush wound up bringing the Red Bulls midfielder down in the penalty area. But New York failed to capitalize as Kljestan’s penalty kick was saved, and Montreal locked it down after that.

Montreal’s four defenders and three veteran midfielders function as a unit, clogging passing lanes and swarming the focal point of an opponent’s attack. They erased D.C.’s Luciano Acosta in the knockout round and made life miserable for Kljestan in this series, forcing the playmaker to pass to the side or back and disconnecting him from Wright-Phillips.

Montreal committed 22 fouls on Sunday and 18 in the opener, compared to New York’s combined 21. But the series’s only red card went to the Red Bulls. Montreal toes the line. The Impact are a team that knows its strengths and they have the discipline to stick with a demanding and rigorous game plan. But it’s proven successful. If it works in Mexico City, it’ll work on I-95. The Impact will be the underdog again in the conference finals. But they’re on a roll, in rhythm and won’t be an easy out.

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