Impact look to end away skid to Red Bulls in conference semifinal

The Montreal Impact were not expected to be able to stand up against the top team in the MLS' East in the New York Red Bulls. But they ended up finding a way to a 1-nil victory instead.

MONTREAL — Since they joined Major League Soccer in 2012, the Montreal Impact have played seven games at Red Bull Arena and lost every one.

Now, they need to break that streak to stay alive in the playoffs.

"This is a big game and whether we play it in New York or on Mars or in Montreal we’ve got to be ready," coach Mauro Biello said this week. "That’s what the focus is going to be."

The Impact won the first leg of the two-game total goals Eastern Conference semifinal 1-0 over the Red Bulls at Saputo Stadium and will be looking to preserve that edge in the return leg Sunday in Harrison, N.J.

To do that, they will need a favourable result at a stadium in which, so far, they have been outscored 21-7. The Impact get through with a win, tie or one-goal loss where they score at least once.

A 1-0 New York win would send the teams to extra time, while a two-goal victory would see the Red Bulls advance.

Montreal is up against a team that has the MLS goal-scoring leader in Bradley Wright-Phillips and the assists leader in Sasha Kljestan, both among the finalists for the league most valuable player award along with New York City’s David Villa.

But this could be Montreal’s year for ending away failures. On Aug. 27, they won in Toronto for the first time in five MLS seasons. And in the first round of playoffs last Thursday, they swamped DC United 4-2 for their first victory at RFK Stadium in Washington.

"It’s about following our game plan," Biello said. "It’s a two-legged series.

"We’ve got the lead now and we’ve got to manage this game in the right way. As much as they’ve got to push forward to score points, that means they could leave space for us. That’s something we need to recognize, but we also need to slow the game down and put it on our terms when we can. It won’t be easy, but my team is ready."

What they don’t want is a repeat of least year, when they won the opening leg of the conference semifinals 2-1 at home over Columbus, but then gave up a goal to Kai Kamara in the fourth minute of the return leg. Kamara scored again in overtime for the win.

"The Red Bulls are going to come with the fans behind them," Biello said. "We’ve got to be strong early and let the game settle down and slowly grow in the game.

"That will be key. We need to calm things down and manage the momentum in the right way."

At least the Impact’s away losses to the Red Bulls have been getting progressively closer. They were beaten 5-2 on their first visit in 2012, 4-0 the following year and 4-2 in 2014.

This season, after winning 3-0 at Olympic Stadium on March 12, they fell 3-1 to the Red Bulls away on Aug. 13.

But their last visit, a 1-0 setback on Sept. 24, may have been the start of a turnaround that saved their season. They had been losing badly, including one-sided setbacks at home to Orlando and New England, when Biello began to put together the starting 11 that has seen them go on a late-season winning run.

It included a back line of Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera in the middle with Hassoun Camara and Ambroise Oyongo as the fullbacks, with a central midfield of Marco Donadel, Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier.

The following game, Didier Drogba was pulled from the starting 11 in favour of Matteo Mancosu, who has formed a dangerous attacking partnership with playmaker Ignacio Piatti. Speedster Dominic Oduro moved onto the right wing.

Including that 3-1 win over San Jose, the Impact have since gone 4-1-1, with the loss coming with a lineup of substitutes in the final game of the regular season.

Mancosu has three goals in two playoff games, including the first leg winner against New York, but the Impact have also tightened the defence.

"You see the focus the players have," said Biello. "The cover, being in the right position, making the right decisions.

"These are things that allow me to believe that my team is focused in the defensive phase and understands how to work together. Those are good signs of a team jelling right now."

A concern is that Bernardello had to be substituted after suffering cramps in his left calf. Biello said he will be evaluated daily and a decision will be made later this week on whether he can play. Calum Mallace would be the likely substitute, but the coach was not ready to name a replacement.

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