MONTREAL — It wasn’t perhaps an ideal outcome, but all things considered, Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals was a great result for the Montreal Impact.
Having only just played Toronto FC in the preliminary playoff round on Thursday, the Impact were given very little time to recuperate for this encounter—as opposed to the Crew who had a bye. The fact that Montreal was able to muster enough energy to find a way back into the game after Federico Higuain, the Crew’s main attacking catalyst, opened the scoring from close range, was quite remarkable.
Referee Chris Pentsos, who happens to be from Dover, Ohio—a fact that, Montreal coach Mauro Biello opined, made his appointment “strange”—didn’t make things easier when he disallowed what appeared to be a legitimate goal from Didier Drogba that had given the Impact an early lead in the game.
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A 2-1 victory might not offer the Impact a considerable advantage going into next Sunday’s return leg (a 1-0 win would be enough for Columbus to progress to the next round) but Biello was justifiably happy about Sunday’s result.
“Given the fact that we played three games in a week, I’m extremely happy that we managed to win,” Biello explained in the post-game press conference.
For team captain Patrice Bernier, who scored the equalizer, it was yet another example of the Impact’s determined fighting spirit.
“We got the win and these are not easy games,” Bernier said. “We [conceded] an away goal, yes, but we won the game, so that means that they’ll have to win the next game. We showed our strength of character. Maybe we didn’t play pretty but, yet again, we showed that we can find ways to win games.”
Although the Impact are now favourites to advance to the Eastern Conference Final, there’s still a lot of work ahead of them as Sunday’s result is one that this Columbus side is more than capable of overturning. Boasting players, centre backs included, who are very comfortable in possession, it’s a team that has good balance and that is well organized both in defence and in the attack.
Impact midfielder Marco Donadel asserted, with confidence, that Gregg Berhalter’s team was the strongest in the Eastern Conference. For Donadel, one of the aspects that makes the Crew so challenging to go up against, especially when compared with Sebastian Giovinco’s TFC, is its attacking fluidity.
“They’re a bit difficult to play because they don’t really have a main point of reference,” Donadel explained. “There’s Higuain, but you can’t really consider him a second striker, because he moves everywhere—you find him on the right, on the left. With Giovinco, in a way, it was easier for me [to cover]. even if it was difficult when he got possession, but you know where he’s going to be more or less.
“With Higuain he goes just about everywhere and then at times they move two or three players between the lines and it becomes difficult to cover. In the beginning it was a bit of a challenge for us but we got better with our distances and we grew physically as the game progressed.”
A big positive for the Impact was that Columbus, for all of its attacking groove and graceful ball retention, didn’t create very many scoring opportunities. Forward Kai Kamara, who along with Giovinco had the most goals in MLS this season with 22, barely had a good look on goal.
“The defence played a great game,” Biello remarked. “They didn’t really penetrate very often. They had more of the ball in different moments, but we expected that from them. It’s a team that passes the ball really well, they’re the best in the league at that, but I thought our defence did great work.”
One question mark for the Crew going into the game was how their own defence would shape up, seeing as how they conceded a whopping 53 goals over the course of the season. However, with the towering presence of new signing Gaston Sauro alongside Michael Parkhurst in the middle, Columbus now seems quite secure at the back as well.
Everything points to Sunday’s rematch being another tight affair.
And if the Montreal-Columbus series didn’t already have plenty of flavor and intrigue, Sauro has certainly added a great deal more spice with his harum-scarum style defending and incessant trash talking reminiscent of Italy’s infamous Marco Materazzi.
At least the next time around, the Impact will be fully rested.
Nick Sabetti is a Montreal-based writer. Follow him on Twitter