Red-hot D.C. a tough challenge for Montreal in MLS playoffs

Didier Drogba won’t be playing for Montreal Impact in their playoff match against D.C. United, but Craig Forrest and James Sharman make the point that the Impact could be better off without him.

The Montreal Impact were the in-form team in Major League Soccer this time last year. Now that honour belongs to D.C. United, the Impact’s opponents on Thursday night in the first round of the MLS playoffs

Ever since D.C.’s crushing 4-1 loss to Toronto FC at BMO Field on July 27, the team has experienced an incredible resurgence, losing just two of their last 14 games to close out the regular season. One of those defeats came in United’s regular-season finale on Sunday against Orlando City.

The Impact faced the Black and Red twice during their hot streak. They drew 1-1 at RFK Stadium on July 31 and again at Stade Saputo on Aug. 24. Surprisingly, those were the only two times D.C. failed to score multiple goals in a game following the loss to TFC in late July.

The hosts for this Thursday’s playoff game boast an attack that has scored 34 goals in its previous 14 matches. The mid-season acquisitions of Patrick Mullins from New York City FC and Lloyd Sam from the New York Red Bulls have been especially huge boosts. Mullins and Sam have been involved in 18 of the 34 goals during the team’s strong run of form.

However, the Impact are prepared for D.C.’s high-octane offence and feel confident about shutting it down on Thursday at RFK Stadium.

“We have to expect the same [style of attack],” Montreal defender Hassoun Camara told Sportsnet.

“They had a strong comeback, but we didn’t lose against them this year. I think we have to be very focused from the start, to build something from the middle, and to hold onto the ball. If we have the ball, they have less chances to score. I think we’re ready. We have to get into the right mindset when we go over there and work very hard.”

Camara, who played in all but six games for the Impact this season, was one of several defenders who missed time due to injury. The 30-year-old strained his hamstring in April, as did fullback Donny Toia. Even stalwart centre-back Laurent Ciman was hurt.

The injuries, suspensions and international call-ups certainly didn’t help the Impact, who conceded 53 goals compared to just 44 in 2015. The back line is fully fit entering Thursday’s match, but Camara admits that it wasn’t easy to deal with injuries during the season.

“It doesn’t help because you need everybody to be healthy and to help the team,” Camara said. “It’s not only the four at the back, but all of the players need to be ready to have good continuity. In the end, we have to deal with .

“You need to have a good relationship between us to have confidence, to build something from the back. When you’re out for a week, or two weeks, it becomes difficult to get something quickly.”

The only injury concern is Didier Drogba, who has been nursing a back problem for the past few days. Drogba did some light jogging in training on Tuesday, but he left the field after about 15 minutes, and has since been ruled out of Thursday’s game.

A little more than two weeks have passed since the Ivorian refused to play versus Toronto FC, but the team’s spirit is the highest it has been all year long.

“The atmosphere is very good,” Camara claimed. “This is one of the best feelings in the locker room since the beginning of the season. We had some dinner together, and everything is good. We want to collectively show that we’ll be very strong [at D.C. United].”

The loss of Drogba is not a crucial blow. Montreal has only won three of the 18 games he has started. The Impact are 3-2-2 whenever fellow striker Matteo Mancosu is in the starting XI, and Ignacio Piatti is far more dangerous. The Argentine playmaker scored three goals in the last three matches with Mancosu in the lineup.

Piatti will clearly be the key player for the team. He finished third in MLS scoring this season with 17 goals, but he has never scored against D.C. However, the Impact understand the Copa Libertadores winner is a top player and can produce on the big stage.

“I think that Ignacio is a top player and has the spotlight on himself,” Camara said. “I think he has the faculty to be very efficient for his teammates and for the spectators. When you come to the stadium and you know you’re going to see Ignacio Piatti, you’re very excited. For sure, to me, he’s underrated. It’s tough to say that because he’s a special player.”

The Impact only won two of their last eight regular-season games. However, with a healthy squad and the ability to shut down D.C.’s free-flowing attack, Montreal has a strong chance at progressing to the Eastern Conference semifinals for a second straight year.

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