Montreal's remarkable self-belief shines through in win over Red Bulls
HARRISON, N.J. -- Montreal Impact players had read the projections. They knew that even after thrashing a decent D.C. United squad in the knockout round of these MLS playoffs, few pundits believed they'd be able to get past the New York Red Bulls -- the East's regular-season champions -- in the conference semifinals. Even after the Impact beat the Red Bulls 1-0 in Quebec in the first leg of the series, many felt that the league's best home team would be able to overcome its narrow deficit at Red Bull Arena.
"You see the predictions and everything -- you have to use that as a motivator," Montreal captain Patrice Bernier told ESPN FC after the Impact beat New York 2-1 Sunday at Red Bull Arena to advance to MLS' final four. "We know internally how good we are. We have to show it and sometimes prove people wrong."
The upset made them the first Canadian team to qualify for this stage of the season, beating Toronto FC (which trounced New York City FC 5-0 a few miles across the Hudson River) to the feat by a couple of hours. It guarantees that one north-of-the-border club will play in the title match on Dec. 11. The Impact won't be favorites against Sebastian Giovinco and the Reds either, but based on the evidence on display Sunday, they have every chance of beating Toronto.
After the match, forlorn Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch lamented the fact that his side "dominated every single statistical category" but came away on the losing end. New York was also utterly incapable of breaking down the Impact once Matteo Mancosu's goal at Stade Saputo put Montreal up on aggregate.
"When we're down basically the whole series and trying to fight back and they're just hanging on and playing the counter, it makes it a very dangerous team," Marsch said of the club he coached in 2012, Montreal's maiden MLS season. "That's why our tactical approach was so cautious because we didn't want to put ourselves in this situation."
Meanwhile, the visitors' plan worked to perfection. Montreal again clogged up the center of the field, disrupting Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kljestan and forcing the hosts to play down the wings.
"We thought if we close down the middle it would be hard for them [because] they would have to go around us," Impact coach Mauro Biello said.
Biello will surely employ similar tactics against Toronto -- at least as long as his team isn't behind on the scoreboard. The Reds also like to play through the center of the field, where Giovinco and Michael Bradley often conspire to launch attacks.
The Impact have a few other things on their side, too. While Toronto FC will lose Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore to international duty with the U.S. for two crunch World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica, Montreal will remain intact. The Impact will host the first leg of the East final Nov. 22 at 61,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which should provide an electric home atmosphere. And they'll also have Didier Drogba available, at least for the decisive second leg in Toronto.
Drogba, playing for the first time since famously pulling himself from the match-day squad for a late-season match against the Reds, assisted on Nacho Piatti's game winner five minutes after stepping onto the field in New Jersey. Weaker teams would have collapsed after the Drogba drama. For the Impact, it almost seemed to bring them closer together.
"I don't know if it ever really affected us in the locker room as much as people outside wanted it to or thought it would," said goalkeeper Evan Bush, who stopped Kljestan on a first-half penalty.
"Maybe it gave the guys a little bit more confidence in what the staff thought of us, not having to start [Drogba]. But we also knew all along that it was going to be important to get him involved, whether it was coming of the bench or starting or whatever his role might be, because he's a guy that is invaluable when he's on the field. It's not only the goal scoring and the offensive stuff -- it's closing out games, taking balls down, letting us breathe."
The Impact are breathing easy now. After playing three games in 11 days, the international break will provide them more than two weeks to prepare for TFC, and with nine starters on the wrong side of 30, that extra downtime will help.
"We'll be ready. We're not done yet," Bernier said. "The nucleus of this team is strong. For the last year and a half, the team spirit has been fantastic. We show it. Players have been in and out [of the lineup] and we've been able to battle through it. Character and mental strength are the biggest assets of this team. We believed."
Even when nobody else did.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.