The Montreal Impact were 40 minutes from history and, arguably, one of the most unlikely and inspiring triumphs in the history of the sport. Then the Goliath from Mexico found its rhythm, settled in before more than 60,000 fans at the Stade Olympique and shattered the underdog’s CONCACAF Champions League dreams.
Club América, Mexico’s most decorated club, scored three goals during a dizzying 16-minute spell in the second half, overturning an early deficit and then clinching its sixth continental title with a 4-2 victory. The Mexico City team won the two-game series, 5-3, on aggregate.
The Impact, Major League Soccer’s worst team in 2014, were hoping to become the first from the U.S./Canadian circuit to claim a CONCACAF title since the Champions League format was introduced in 2008-09. Montreal qualified via the Canadian Championship and won its first-round group last fall. It then went on an improbable run in the knockout stages, besting Mexico’s Pachuca and Costa Rica’s L.D. Alajuelense before earning a surprising 1-1 draw in last week’s final opener at the imposing Estadio Azteca.
The stage was set, and midfielder Andrés Romero lifted Montreal into the lead with a gorgeous 8th-minute goal. But América, once it found its composure, simply was too talented. Las Aguilas will represent CONCACAF in December’s FIFA Club World Cup, in which MLS (once again) won’t factor. But U.S. soccer will. América defender Ventura Alvarado, who made his U.S. national team debut in March, went the full 90 minutes on Wednesday and is on track to play for a world title in Japan. Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres (both with Pachuca) and the retired Jovan Kirovski (Borussia Dortmund) also played in club soccer’s biggest event.
Here are three thoughts from Wednesday’s CCL decider:
So close, but still so far
For the second time, an MLS contender got the tough part out of the way before stumbling at home. In both cases, the Mexican opponent was more talented. But the circumstances and setting made the losses feel agonizing all the same.
In 2011, Real Salt Lake became the first MLS team to qualify for a CCL final (the LA Galaxy and D.C. United played for and won the CONCACAF Championship back when the tournament was played as a single-elimination competition in the U.S.). RSL opened the series in Monterrey and earned a 2-2 draw thanks to a late goal from Javier Morales. A win, or a 0-0 or 1-1 draw would have sealed things back in Utah. But the second leg’s only goal came off the foot of Monterrey’s Humberto Suazo.
The Impact entered Wednesday’s showpiece with similar momentum. It held its own at the Azteca and was rested and confident following last week’s opener. While Montreal had the weekend off, América drew arch rival Chivas de Guadalajara in Liga MX play. A win or a scoreless draw on Wednesday would send the Impact to Japan.
But it wasn’t to be. The optimistic will see the mere 40 minutes that separated Montreal from glory. But the realist will see a half’s worth of domination by América and four goals that illustrated the legitimate, albeit delayed, gulf in class between the sides. Montreal, and most MLS teams, can't deploy weapons like Dario Benedetto (three goals on Wednesday) and Oribe Peralta (one).
The gap is narrowing. América had to work for its trophy. But there’s still a gap. Mexican clubs have won 10 straight CONCACAF titles.
But Montreal proved it belonged
Montreal’s CCL record wasn’t great—4-1-4 coming in and only 1-1-3 in the knockout stages—and its MLS form over the past year and a half has been miserable. It certainly lacks top-tier, championship pedigree.
América goalkeeper Moisés Muñoz’s opinion of the Impact, which he shared following the first-leg draw, likely reflects that of many opponents and observers who were left grasping trying to explain the Canadian club’s stunning CCL run: “That team does not deserve to be champions,” he said, adding, “Montreal had a lot of luck and I hope it has now ended.”
Montreal’s luck did end, and América was the deserving winner. But the Impact weren't out of their depth and demonstrated over the 180 minutes that their silver medal was well earned. Save the second half of the final’s second leg, Montreal negotiated the knockout stages with confidence and composure.
They saw their depth tested, first with the injuries to Justin Mapp and Cameron Porter, then the suspension of goalkeeper Evan Bush and finally the loss of defenders Hassoun Camara and Victor Cabrera before Wednesday’s game. They faced typically inscrutable CONCACAF officiating—América should have had a player sent off in the first leg and very well could have suffered one or two red cards at the Olympique.
And the Impact enjoyed spells in each round where they were on the front foot and consistently dangerous.
On Wednesday, América struggled to deal with Montreal’s speed and comfort on the counter during the first half and was fortunate to trail by only one. Ignacio Piatti missed an open look in the 24th and the visitors had no choice but to commit several cynical fouls to blunt the Impact on the break.
Ultimately, this rebuilt Montreal team lacked the depth and quality to best América over two legs. Shifting midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker to right back, which was necessitated by Camara and Cabrera’s injuries, hurt the team in two key areas. The Impact have no big-name stars. Club América has several. But Montreal earned its way to the final and showed well despite the odds. It may not have won gold, but it should win some respect.
The Impact now will return to an MLS campaign that’s only four matches old (Montreal is 0-2-2), thanks to the fact that the league and several clubs kindly adjusted their schedules so Montreal could focus on CONCACAF.
RSL was set back by its 2011 loss. It won only two of its ensuing 10 MLS games. Impact coach Frank Klopas will have to ensure Wednesday’s failure doesn’t have the same affect on his squad, which now must capitalize on the momentum generated by its CCL run.
Unless it reverses its MLS fortunes and maintains some buzz in Quebec, the last couple of months won’t mean much.
For Montreal’s MLS counterparts, this season’s CCL should inspire. The attention paid to the unheralded Impact since late February should end any conversation about whether the CCL matters. It clearly does—if MLS teams contend. And contending not only is possible, it now should be expected.
The Impact prioritized the tournament and considered international experience and seasoning when rebuilding its roster. The club spent money and time preparing for the knockout rounds with two extended trips to Mexico. The Impact invested in the CCL and nearly reaped historic dividends.
In so doing, they established a bit of a blueprint that ambitious, and perhaps more talented, MLS teams might follow.