Surprising Impact Just 90 Minutes Away From History

A spot in the CCL final awaits Montréal if they can survive Tuesday night
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, April 02, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

In this, the unlikeliest CONCACAF Champions League since the current format began in 2008, the Montréal Impact are 90 minutes away from history.

To call this run unexpected might be an understatement. Of the five MLS clubs that started in the CCL back in August, the Impact may have been the one that the least was expected from. Montréal had been incredibly inconsistent throughout 2014, and would eventually finish last in the Eastern Conference. They were in the same group as the New York Red Bulls, seen as heavy favorites to advance to the CCL knockout stage. Outside of their Canadian Championship win over Toronto (2-1 on aggregate), there wasn’t much that indicated that there was a run the Quebec side.

But here is Montréal, in the CCL semifinals and with a 2-0 lead going into Tuesday night’s match against Costa Rican powers Alajuelense on the rug at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela. If they can survive and advance, then they become the first Canadian club to ever make the final of a CONCACAF continental club championship. They’re already just the second Canadian club to even make a semifinal, following Toronto’s 2012 appearance.

How did the Impact get here? First, they didn’t lose a match in the group stage back into 2014. They took both matches of a home-and-home series against El Salvadorian side FAS, winning 1-0 at Stade Saputo and 3-2 in San Salvador. Then, in the home-and-home against the Red Bulls to finish group play, they won the home leg 1-0 and then held on for a 1-1 draw at Red Bull Arena, finishing the group stage with 10 points and advancing to the spring quarterfinals. One could say they rode Marco Di Vaio for much of the group stage, as he scored four of the Impact’s six goals in the group stage. But the Group 3 winner was scored by Jack McInerney at RBA, and that set up what was to come next.

Because of their strong finish, they were seeded 4th in the CCL quarterfinals, and thus would play the second leg against Mexico’s Pachuca in Stade Olympique (where the Impact plays their early season matches). But MLS success against Mexican sides in the CCL knockout stages is rare and Montréal would still be in preseason when it was time to play the quarters. While the Impact were expected to be better this season than in 2014, not many were expecting them to advance.

Thus, the shock when the Impact took a 2-0 lead at Estadio Hidalgo was quite strong. Though Pachuca came back to level the score, the Impact held on for the draw, and suddenly the possibility of the semifinals was real. In the second leg in Montréal, the Impact withstood every Pachuca attack for 80 minutes, until a penalty was called on Laurent Ciman and Germán Cano converted the spot kick. It looked like the Impact’s CCL run was over, but a stunning counterattack in the 94th minute, expertly finished by rookie Cameron Porter, sent the crowd of over 38,000 in Stade Olympique into a frenzy, and suddenly Montréal was in the semis.

Montréal became part of possibly the most unexpected semifinals in the short history of the CCL. With only one Mexican side (Club América) and two Costa Rican clubs (Alajuelense and Herediano) joined the Impact in a final four that no one saw coming in August. It also guaranteed the first final since 2011 that wouldn’t be an all-Mexican affair, but could see the first all-Costa Rican final since the 2004 CONCACAF Champions Cup.

The only time an MLS club made the CCL final was also in 2011, when Real Salt Lake lost to Monterrey over two legs. The last time MLS was represented in the semis was 2013, when the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders made it to the last four. But they lost to Mexican clubs, LA to defending champs Monterrey and Seattle to Santos Laguna (who also knocked Toronto out in the semifinal stage in 2012), and that was it. No MLS club even made the semis in 2014, the fourth time since the CCL format was established for 2008-09 that it happened.

That just adds to the unexpectedness of Montréal’s run. And they got off to a great start, riding two early goals from Ignacio Piatti and Víctor Cabrera to finish off their home leg with a 2-0 lead, and getting closer to a final that many never dreamed they could reach. But it felt like the Impact should have scored one more, just to be safe.

Alajuelense was at this stage last year, and failed to score in two legs against Toluca. So, the chance of getting to the final, where they haven’t been since the 2004 Champions Cup (which they won), and being able to erase the bad memories of 2014, will push them to attack heavily all night. Montréal must be ready, because a two-goal lead can vanish in a moment.

If the MLS form means anything, Montréal may yet be a mystery. They lost the opener 1-0 at DC United, then had a scoreless draw at New England and blew a 2-0 lead at Stade Olympique before holding on to a 2-2 draw with Orlando City. But they get this weekend off to prepare for the trip to Alajuelense, and that could help in preparation.

That the Impact have reached this point is amazing. If they survive Tuesday’s trip to Costa Rica and advance to the CCL final, it will become another chapter in one of the more unexpected runs in recent memory. Montréal wasn’t even expected to get out of Group 3, but now they’re on the verge of history, history for both MLS and for Canadian soccer.

It’s now just a matter of finishing the job.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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