Impact fighting for MLS pride in CONCACAF final

Soccer analyst Craig Forrest says 61,000 screaming Montreal Impact fans will be witness to the biggest game in club history for Canadian soccer.

MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact are on the verge of making history.

Montreal can become the first Canadian club and first team from Major League Soccer to win the CONCACAF Champions League—all that stands in their way is the formidable Club America of Mexico.

The Impact will take on Club America before a record crowd at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Wednesday night in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final.

Here are some things you should know about this game.

Wednesday programming alert: Watch Montreal Impact vs. Club America in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final live on Sportsnet ONE and Sportsnet World. Coverage starts at 8:00 pm ET/5:00 pm PT. || Sportsnet World NOW || Broadcast schedule

Impact can make history

In the six Champions League tournaments since the first one in 2008-09, only one other MLS club has ever reached the final (Real Salt Lake in 2011). Other than that, the finals have always been contested between two Mexican sides.

Montreal has the advantage ahead of Wednesday’s return match having secured a valuable road goal in a 1-1 draw in last week’s first leg at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. A win or a 0-0 draw on Wednesday would see the Impact crowned CONCACAF champions.

If it’s 1-1 after 90 minutes or regulation, the game would go into extra time and then a shootout, if required. Club America needs a victory in order to win the final.

Impact’s goalkeeping issues

Without a doubt, the biggest story surrounding Wednesday’s game is who Impact coach Frank Klopas will start in net.

Montreal will play this historic match without their starting goalkeeper Evan Bush, and instead must rely on one of two backups in either John Smits or Kristian Nicht, both of whom have not only never played a single game in MLS, they have yet to play for the Impact.

Installed as Montreal’s starting goalkeeper last season, Bush, 29, has played a key role in the Impact’s run to the CONCACF final. But he picked up a caution in last week’s game in Mexico City, ruling him out for Wednesday’s return match due to yellow card accumulation. The Impact appealed the suspension but CONCACAF rejected it Monday.

That left Montreal with a major dilemma, as normal backup Eric Kronberg is cup tied, having previously played for Sporting Kansas City earlier in this year’s competition. Montreal called in Smits, a 26-year-old goalkeeper with FC Edmonton in the second-tier NASL, on emergency loan.

There was still a problem, though. Third-stringer Maxime Crepeau a 21-year-old native of Quebec, only recently returned from injury and is inexperienced, having yet to make his professional debut.

So on Monday night, right before an 8:00 pm ET deadline imposed by CONCACAF, the Impact acquired Nicht via transfer from NASL club Indy Eleven. Nicht, 33, has played the majority of his career in the German first and second divisions before making the jump to the NASL in 2012. The German spent time with the Impact earlier in the tournament as an on-loan emergency goalkeeper when Smits was unavailable.

Nicht or Smits?

Klopas didn’t tip his hand as to who’ll start in goal for the second leg when speaking to reporters before the team’s practice on Tuesday. But you’d have to think Klopas will go with Nicht, as he’s more experienced than Smits.

While Smits has yet to play a single minute of NASL action this season, Nicht made 13 saves in his four starts and boasted the league’s second-best goals-against average at 1.00. The German was named to the NASL team of the week for Week 3, helping Indy Eleven beat the San Antonio Scorpions 2-1. He also trained with the Impact as part of its MLS pre-season preparations.

“I’m not going to lie to you that we didn’t look at a lot of different options. But in the end, we acquired him and he’s someone who knows and fits in well within our group,” Klopas said.

Assuming Nicht starts, it’s not an ideal situation for the German, being thrust into the spotlight like this as part of the biggest match in Montreal’s history. Klopas, though, thinks he will rise to the occasion if called upon.

“He’s an experienced guy. It’s difficult to replace your starting goalkeeper with anyone you put in there. But (Kristian is) very familiar with our group, a very experienced player who’s been in big games. Whoever you put in there you can’t put the pressure on one guy. That would be very unfair,” Klopas stated.

The crowd

Montreal announced on Monday that this game will be played in front of a sellout of 61,044 fans—that will break the record for the biggest crowd to watch a professional game in Canadian soccer history.

“The thing I love most about this city, beside how beautiful it is, is how passionate the fans are. … They’re behind us 100 percent, whether they’re hockey or soccer fans. It’s a city that’s rich in sports culture and they’re all behind us,” Klopas said.

Klopas later quipped: “If we win then I’ll get a lot of free coffees over the new few weeks.”

Previously, the Impact drew large crowds for its Champions League match from 2009 vs. Santos Laguna (55,571), its inaugural MLS home opener in 2012 vs. the Chicago Fire (58,912) and for a game against David Beckham and the LA Galaxy in 2012 (60,860).

Club America: Biggest team in Mexico

Founded in 1916, Club de Futbol America S.A. de C.V., commonly known as Club America, is one of the biggest and best teams in Mexico. It has won the Mexican league title a record 12 times, and won the CONCACF Champions’ Cup—the forerunner to the Champions League—on five occasions.

Owned by media company Grupo Televisa, the team plays its home games at the Azteca Stadium, the largest stadium in Mexico with a seating capacity of approximately 104,000. Club America is coached by Gustavo Matosas, a former international who earned a handful of caps for Uruguay during his playing career. The team has never won the CONCACAF Champions League, and this marks its first trip to the final.

Matosas’ side cruised through the group stage of this year’s tournament, topping a group that included Comunicaciones of Guatemala and Puerto Rico Bayamon. The Mexican side then dispatched a pair of Costa Rican teams—Saprissa and Herediano—in the next two knockout rounds.

Players to watch out for include Mexican striker Oribe Peralta, who is the top scorer in this season’s Champions League with six goals. Teammate Martin Zuniga also has five goals, while Argentine winger Dario Benedetto has four.

Montreal rested, America very busy

Club America is currently seventh in the Mexican league with a 6-5-4 record and 23 points, just three points off the pace of league leaders Chivas Guadalajara, the team’s biggest rival.

Club America is coming off 1-1 draw vs. Chivas Guadalajara this past weekend and arrived in Montreal on Monday, so fatigue may be a factor.

Montreal, on the other hand, is well rested. MLS has rescheduled two of the Impact’s league games so that they can focus on the Champions League. Montreal will end up playing only one MLS game this month, a 3-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo on April 11.

What do Gerry and Craig think?
FIFA World Club Cup berth at stake

The winner of this two-legged final will go on to represent CONCACAF and the 2015 FIFA World Club Cup this November in Japan, a tournament featuring all the top continental club champions in world soccer, including the winner of this year’s UEFA Champions League.

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