Two first-half goals sent the Montreal Impact, perhaps the unlikeliest continental contender in MLS history, to a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win over visiting L.D. Alajuelense in Wednesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal opener.
Here are three thoughts from a match that puts an MLS club, one that finished dead last in league play last year, just 90 minutes from the finals. Only one U.S./Canadian team has reached that stage in the past 14 years.
Coach Klopas makes impact despite suspension
Impact coach Frank Klopas lost his mind just a bit when his team clinched its quarterfinal victory over Pachuca. His hysterical hip thrust directed toward the referee, which resulted in a red card and suspension for Wednesday’s match, will live forever. Fortunately for Montreal, however, Klopas had his wits about him during the buildup to the semis.
Influential winger Justin Mapp is out for some four months with a fractured elbow, and the Impact attack wasn’t too threatening during the 1-0 MLS loss to D.C. United on March 7. Klopas knew that victory on Wednesday in Montreal was essential.
The only realistic hope to advance lay in taking an aggregate advantage into next month’s second leg in Alajuela.
The manager got his tactics right. Knowing that LDA likes to pass and combine, Klopas prepared his team to clog the midfield and break ruthlessly when the ball turned over.
“They might have the ball more,” goalkeeper Evan Bush told reporters this week. “That’s just the style that they play. But in the times that we get the ball, we can create things quickly and get forward quickly. Those are the times we’ll be able to have success.”
He was right, and Klopas provided the tools. The speedy Dominic Oduro started in place of Mapp rather than in his customary spot up front. There, instead of Oduro or Jack McInerney, Klopas inserted rookie Cameron Porter, whose stoppage-time goal against Pachuca sent Montreal to the semis. Porter, 21, was the 45th pick in the January draft and had 33 minutes of pro experience before kickoff. Yet he played with fearlessness and invention, dribbling at LDA defenders and combining well with playmaker Ignacio Piatti.
Montreal attacked quickly, exploiting the gaping seams left in the LDA midfield and creating numerous golden scoring opportunities. They finished two.
Piatti scored in the 10th minute, finishing a cross from Oduro that was flicked just barely by Porter as it whizzed through the LDA penalty area. In the 13th, Piatti forced goalkeeper Dexter Lewis into an acrobatic save that resulted in a corner kick. The ensuing service fell to the feet of Impact defender Victor Cabrera—another player who didn’t start in D.C.—and he scored on a bouncing shot to the left.
Montreal never appeared too worried or disorganized in defense and continued to create chances. Its only regret on an historic night might be that it didn’t score on more.
A silver lining to a miserable season
How does a team that won only six league games in 2014 stand on the precipice of the CCL finals? By winning a unique double of wooden spoon and domestic cup.
Typically, teams bad enough to finish last don’t challenge for trophies. But for two consecutive seasons, it’s happened in MLS. In 2013, D.C. won only three MLS matches. But it somehow managed to win four (plus another on penalty kicks) in the U.S. Open Cup. Last season, the Impact—MLS’ worst team—claimed the five-team Canadian Championship and with it, a spot in the CCL.
The combination produces a windfall, by MLS standards. Clubs that miss the playoffs and those that qualify for the CCL get a boost in their allocation funding, which doesn’t count against their salary budget. In the winter of 2013-14, United used that money to help transform the team into one that finished in first place in the Eastern Conference. This winter, Klopas and the Impact went out and signed 11 new players.
Overhaul was needed on the field and off, and the differences already are apparent. “It became a habit of losing,” he said of last season.
“We didn’t have that killer mentality—‘we’re supposed to win this game,’” goalkeeper Evan Bush recently told SI.com. “We had guys who waited for things to happen. I think it’s different this year.”
Of the 11 Montreal starters on Wednesday, all four defenders, both central midfielders and Oduro were offseason acquisitions. And Porter, of course, is new as well. This Impact team bears no resemblance to last year’s because of the fortunate timing of a couple of key wins.
History beckons in Costa Rica
Wednesday’s game mattered. MLS commissioner Don Garber flew up from New York and 33,675 fans showed up at the Stade Olympique despite having only two weeks’ notice. MLS’ consistent CONCACAF failure is a black eye for a league that’s eager for respect and which has so made so many significant strides. Now, an unlikely candidate is close to ending the drought.
Only four MLS clubs have qualified for the final of CONCACAF’s championship tournament. The LA Galaxy (twice) and United made it back when the event was an abbreviated, single-elimination competition played in the U.S. Since the home-and-away format was instituted in 2002, Real Salt Lake is the only team to break the Tico/Mexican monopoly. RSL was fortunate to draw the Columbus Crew in the 2011 CCL quarterfinals.
It then outlasted Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa in the semis before falling to Monterrey. No MLS club has ever won two home-and-home series against Latin American opponents in the same competition.
Now, Montreal is on the verge. LDA is dangerous at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, as D.C. can attest. Alajuelense crushed United, 5-2, in the first leg of their quarterfinal. But Montreal enters the April 7 decider with the comfort of a two-goal cushion and the confidence that comes from a strong start to 2015. D.C.’s loss to LDA notwithstanding, MLS clubs have proven the equal to their Costa Rican counterparts in recent seasons, winning three of the past five knockout series. If the Impact keeps its composure, a historic and stunning trip to the CCL finals is well within reach.