WASHINGTON—The paint is peeling and the concrete is crumbling here and there, but RFK Stadium hasn’t lost all of its aura. It’s not a comfortable place for visiting teams. That could be due to the lack of modern amenities, because the stands still bounce or because it seemed as if two decades of triumphant tradition had put a recent spring in the step of D.C. United’s current players. The four-time MLS champs finally were playing stylish soccer again, and they entered the 2016 playoffs on a 6–2–4 tear and without a home loss since June 1.
But when you’ve escaped the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Costa Rica and survived the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, how intimidating could RFK possibly be? For the Montreal Impact, the answer Thursday evening was ‘not very’.
Entering this season’s MLS Cup playoffs, hosts had won 10 of the 12 knockout-round matches contested since the postseason expanded in 2011. And they went three-for-four last week. The outlier—the only visitor to win in the past four years—was undaunted Montreal, which made RFK its home away from home moments after kickoff. The Impact took the lead in the fourth minute, put the game on their terms and bullied D.C. off the pitch. The 4–2 scoreline flattered United, which didn’t score until the 90th minute.
It was a perfect road performance—and a perfect playoff performance—by a Montreal squad whose uneven year may have hidden its postseason potential. But that potential always was recognized inside the Impact locker room, where a host of veterans have earned survive-and-advance experience in some of the toughest environments on the continent.
“I think that throughout the course of this year, we didn’t really meet the expectations and standards we set for ourselves. But we found a way to keep fighting,” Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush said. “We know what we need to do. We have a lot of guys who’ve played in very big games in this team, and that’s what you have a veteran team for. That’s what the makeup of this team is.”
Nine of Montreal’s 11 starters in Washington are in their 30s.
“It was key for us to play with veteran guys—guys who understand the situation,” winger Dominic Oduro explained. “We have guys who’ve been in situations like this, who have been in playoff situations or CONCACAF situations where you know, the light turns red and you have to go out there and be hungry, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The Impact had never won an MLS playoff game when they embarked on an historic run to last year’s CONCACAF Champions League finals. But the club committed itself to preparing for that tournament and conducted a chunk of its preseason preparation in Mexico ahead of a quarterfinal showdown with Pachuca. It paid off, and the Impact left the Estadio Hidalgo with a 2–2 draw—a rare result for MLS teams on Mexican soil. A week later, a dramatic 1–1 tie in Montreal was enough to send the Impact through on away goals. In the semis, they took a two-goal lead to Costa Rica, increased the advantage to three in the first half at LD Alajuelense and then held on for dear life. Again, Montreal advanced thanks to away goals and in doing so it became the first MLS team to win two home-and-home series against Latin American opposition in the same tournament.
In the CCL finals, Montreal showed off its road mettle and earned a 1–1 draw with heavily-favored Club América at the Azteca. The Impact then were 40 minutes from the title at the Stade Olympique when América finally broke through. Montreal came up short, but there was a silver lining to that silver medal. The experience was priceless for a club that hadn't established itself among the MLS elite. Last fall, the Impact won their first playoff game (at home against Toronto) before falling to eventual Eastern champ Columbus in overtime at Mapfre Stadium.
A playoff blueprint was developed. As Bush said, the 2016 regular season was nothing to brag about. Montreal never won more than two in a row and finished fifth in the Eastern Conference. But it was one of only three Eastern teams that never fell out of the playoff places, and it had no problem turning the page once the postseason arrived.
“You forget about the 34 games that you’ve played. You trash that out,” Oduro said. “Now it’s a whole different ball game. The mindset, you’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to be hungry. You’ve got to be gritty and ready to go.”
Grit is key. There’s not much that’s objectively pretty about Montreal’s approach, but that aligns nicely with playoff requirements. Coach Mauro Biello’s team is well organized, in sync and disciplined. Against D.C., the Impact clogged the midfield, plugged passing lanes and fouled frequently but not excessively. There were no yellow cards. United held a 59%-41% possession advantage but Montreal was far more dangerous as Oduro, Ignacio Piatti and newly-acquired Italian forward Matteo Mancosu—playing in place of the injured Didier Drogba—were smart and quick on the counter.
Each player embraced his role and the big picture remained in focus. United fans booed even in the first half as Bush lingered over goal kicks and Montreal took its time on throw-ins. But gamesmanship like that wins games. The Impact learned that last year.
“You see these little details, they make the difference,” Impact captain Patrice Bernier told SI.com. “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. That’s what happened.”
He continued, “We complain sometimes in CONCACAF, us North Americans, that the Latin teams always [do that]. But they find ways to win. That’s part of the game. It’s a culture we have to accept and you have to be smart. Guys have learned through these games like the Champions League what it takes.”
All of this took place beneath the shadow cast by Drogba, who watched from the RFK mezzanine on Thursday evening and then joined his teammates downstairs following the win. His refusal to play as a substitute two weeks ago against Toronto made headlines, sparked speculation about his future and the state of the Impact locker room and seemed like the sort of distraction that might derail a playoff run.
Except it didn’t.
“He is a part of this team and he is a big influence,” Oduro said. “Even at practice, even though he isn’t out there he is still in the locker room motivating us. Like I said, you guys will hear a different story about our locker room. He is good. We are good. Everyone is good.”
Drogba was held out Thursday because of a back issue and Biello said following the win that an appearance against the New York Red Bulls in Sunday’s opening leg of the conference semis “could be more realistic for him.”
It won’t be necessary, however. The Impact now are 7–3–3 absent Drogba and they have a forward in Mancosu who’s a capable finisher, has greater range and who’s already developing genuine chemistry with Piatti. Mancosu wasn’t around during the CCL run, but he’s a smart, savvy addition to a team that prizes those qualities. Italians famously have a knack for grinding out results in tight games. And the Impact, owned by first-generation Canadian Joey Saputo, typically have Italians on the roster (currently Mancosu and midfielder Marco Donadel).
Bush said he was in the cold tub immediately following Thursday’s game when he stumbled upon a tweet he appreciated from Montreal writer Nick Sabetti:
“It was pretty funny,” Bush said.
The Drogba distraction, road trips, underdog status—none of it came close to messing with Montreal’s minds in D.C.
“It can be hard to get up for a game in July in Columbus,” Bush said. “But when you’re playing a playoff game on the road, wherever it might be, everyone has that little bit of extra focus, attention to detail. This team especially. I haven’t seen our midfield three play like that all year … They were first to every ball. That’s three guys over 30 years old, beating guys in midfield that are all in their 20s.”
The Impact (12–11–12) will have their hands full Sunday at home and then again next weekend in New Jersey against the top-seeded Red Bulls (16–9–9). Playmaker Sacha Kljestan, who led MLS with 20 assists, is more dangerous than anyone Montreal faced in Washington. Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips is the most lethal finisher in the league, and New York’s press will put the Impact under the sort of duress they didn’t encounter at RFK.
The Red Bulls are the favorite. But Pachuca's and Alajuelense's odds probably were better.