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Impact fall to Alajuelense, but advance on away goals to CCL final

Impact fall to Alajuelense in the second leg, but advance on away goals to the CONCACAF Champions League final

Even without winning the CONCACAF Champions League, the Montreal Impact already fulfilled their self-imposed 2015 mandate to “make history.” On Tuesday, the Impact became the first Canadian team to advance to the final of any incarnation of the competition.

Montreal survived the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela, Costa Rica, despite losing 4-2 on the night to host Alajuelense. Jack McInerney’s late first-half goal and Andrés Romero’s in the second gave the Impact all the cushion they needed to advance on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate result.

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​Alajuelense pressured all game but needed a set piece to score. Pablo Gabas smacked in a free kick from dead center, barely farther than 18 yards from Evan Bush's goal, just one minute after the second-half restart.

The 2014 winter regular-season champion of Costa Rica added its second shortly after, as Gabas headed in a corner kick at the far post in the 60th minute. However, even the MLS Eastern Conference’s joint-worst defensive team of '14 couldn’t complete the collapse it would have needed to throw away a two-goal lead from the first leg.

Romero, on the field for 11 minutes, dribbled around a couple defenders in the penalty area to score the killer goal in the 72nd minute. Allen Guevara’s goal seven minutes later and Jonathan McDonald’s late tally in stoppage time provided some consolation, but the deficit proved too great for the host team.

The Impact are into the final. Here are three thoughts on Montreal’s second match against Alajuelense and what awaits:

Less likely MLS teams than Montreal hardly exist

The Impact are a team riddled with injuries—they are missing an important leader in Justin Mapp and upstart rookie Cameron Porter for the long-term—and have won six league matches since the start of the 2014 season. Without the five-team Canadian Championship’s automatic berth, Montreal wouldn’t be anywhere near this competition.

And yet, Frank Klopas’s team braved two difficult away environments in the knockout rounds to be 180 minutes away from the trophy. It took Porter’s stoppage-time stunner to down Pachuca, and some opportunistic counterattacks to do the same to Alajuelense.

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This team proves that anything can happen over a 90-minute period, in positive and negative ways. Its league and continental form are about as opposite as it gets, but to their credit, the players have poured everything into their Champions League efforts.

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CONCACAF play never gets less chaotic

From the opening whistle, a frenetic pace and inconsistent refereeing both ways made for an uncomfortably interesting night. Klopas paced the technical area all game, not even taking a break from yelling at his players to celebrate McInerney’s opener.

Possible red cards littered the timeline, from McDonald’s stomp on Bush to Johnny Acosta’s confrontation with Ignacio Piatti in the corner. Montreal’s players were no less innocent, with Bakary Soumaré pulling McDonald to the ground by his long hair behind the referee’s field of vision.

“It’s not a foul if you don’t get caught” can best describe CONCACAF play on most nights, and Montreal will undoubtedly encounter similar histrionics in the final. The team that manages the referee, its emotions and finds a way to win the game within the game will likely come out on top.

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Avoiding a Mexican opponent could be the difference

Montreal’s likely opponent in the final is another Costa Rican side, Herediano, which leads Club América 3-0 going into the second leg in Mexico. Assuming Herediano, which is owned by American businessman David J. Patey and his brothers Mike and Mark, can hold onto an even bigger advantage than Montreal had, it will continue its deepest-ever run into CONCACAF’s premier club competition.

MLS teams generally have Costa Rican clubs’ number in Champions League play, winning four of the last six series and three of four since the competition’s makeover in 2008-09. D.C. United’s loss to Alajuelense in this year’s quarterfinals is the only loss in that latest stretch.

The record against Mexican opposition paints a grimmer picture: MLS has won just twice in 14 attempts since 2008-09, including Montreal’s win over Pachuca this year. If Montreal wins, its massive effort should be lauded, but champions often need some luck as well.