It would be easy, as well as tempting, for a sportswriter rushing to finish his column before deadline to say of the Montreal Impact’s 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night that it actually felt more like a win.
But the Impact’s exploit deserves a little better than that. How about their best result of the Major League Soccer season so far? It would be hard to argue otherwise.
Last week’s 1-0 home win against the New York Red Bulls has a decent case — because it was very hard fought and against a direct rival — but how many people saw the Impact getting a result in Kansas City? Surely not many. And with good reason. The odds of them coming away with anything were pretty long.
Mostly due to international call-ups, and because of injuries, the Impact were missing almost a dozen players. Children’s Mercy Park might not sound like an intimidating stadium to play in — or a “cauldron” as the club’s fans call it — but Sporting, one of the very best teams in the Western Conference, had been ruthless at home going into Saturday’s encounter. Their home record was 6-0-1 and they outscored opponents 16-2. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, who were called up with the U.S. national team, were missing on the back line, but that was never going to be a very big issue for them.
Losing heavily seemed inevitable for Montreal, and as if foreseeing a drubbing themselves, the Impact started the game — a bizarre game, it must be said — very nervously. Even an experienced player such as Marco Donadel, without any pressure coming his way, was misplacing easy passes in midfield. With seemingly little effort, and to an almost embarrassing degree, Kansas City dictated proceedings, controlling 70 percent of the possession. As soon as the Impact gave away an easy goal in the 24th minute — a rare mistake by 22-year-old centre back Kyle Fisher — it felt like the visitors were definitely in for a very long evening.
Losing heavily wouldn’t have really said much of the Impact, given the number of players missing. Perhaps they would have been able to brush the defeat off quickly and move on. But in all likelihood, it would have undone some of their recent progress — improved confidence and tactical cohesion — gained from their first back-to-back wins of the season. Along with the win over the Red Bulls, they had also defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Canadian Championship semifinals.
There’s no question Sporting made things easier for Montreal than it could have been. They looked complacent. Their play was generally slow and sometimes even lackadaisical, both very unusual for a team of their standard. And the equalizing goal from Montreal’s Matteo Mancosu, who missed the last six weeks to injury, came by way of an awful giveaway from Soni Mustivar.
Children’s Mercy Park was ultimately kind to the Impact, but they also improved in the second half. They grew in confidence. The transition game started to work. Ignacio Piatti, who saw little of the ball in the first 45 minutes, was able to get much more involved and came close to scoring. By the time Mancosu exquisitely scooped the ball over goalkeeper Tim Melia for the equalizer in the 82nd minute, the Impact were deserving of a goal. Sporting was left incredulous, but the final score was fair; from the Impact’s standpoint, it was impressive.
After the final whistle, you could see how much the result meant to the Impact by the way the players huddled together at the centre circle. This will be a game that coach Mauro Biello will be able to refer to later on if ever his players need to be reminded of what they’re capable of in difficult situations. However, don’t expect to see the back three or this formation adopted again this season. It simply doesn’t suit this group of players.
While the point obtained was important from a morale standpoint, it also helped the Impact continue its slow trend upwards in the standings. They’re now three points behind the playoff line, with two games in hand.
But what is it about the Impact that makes it seem like everything can’t ever go well all at once? Andres Romero came off the bench for his first appearance after an ACL tear kept him out for more than a year, but earlier in the day there was bad news as the Impact learned that Ambroise Oyongo might have sustained a severe knee injury while on international duty with Cameroon.
Another vexation: the club will also have to dispute a red card given to Chris Duvall four minutes before the end of Saturday’s game, which wasn’t even worthy of a yellow.
At least, there’s a big point to savour and Saturday confirmed there’s plenty of mental toughness on this team to keep things together in difficult moments.