MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact‘s youngest players got a chance to shine against one of the most storied soccer clubs in Europe.
Montreal lost 2-0 against Italian giants A.S. Roma in an international friendly on Wednesday, but there were flashes of good things to come from the Impact’s up-and-coming talent.
Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau and forwards Balou Jean Yves Tabla and Anthony Jackson-Hamel stole the show from superstars Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Didier Drogba after coming on the pitch as second-half substitutes. Nineteen-year-old David Choiniere, who started the match, also held his own against Roma’s seasoned veterans.
Crepeau, Balou, Jackson-Hamel and Choiniere all play for FC Montreal in the United Soccer League.
"That was a great experience for them," said head coach Mauro Biello. "They really showcased the kind of quality they have. I’m extremely pleased. There was a lot of emotion for those young players, but they acted like professionals.
"The future is bright."
Edin Dzeko and Radja Nainggolan scored in the first half for A.S. Roma in front of a strong Italian contingent at Saputo Stadium. The Giallorossi are on a short North American pre-season tour ahead of their Serie A season opener against Udinese on Aug. 20.
The arrival of Balou and Jackson-Hamel in the 66th minute gave the home side a big boost of energy for the final 25 minutes.
Minutes after coming on, the 17-year-old Balou deked a Roma defender on the edge of the box and fired a shot just wide on the post.
In the 74th, Jackson-Hamel walked in alone on goal but he shot right on goalkeeper Alisson. Balou fired a shot off the crossbar seconds later while hundreds at Saputo Stadium chanted his name.
"That support felt really incredible," said Balou, who has three goals with FC Montreal this season. "I needed that. I’m going to keep working hard. I think I made a real statement. I hope the team was happy with me."
Soccer legend Totti, winner of the 2006 World Cup with Italy, was not in the starting lineup but came into the match as a substitute at halftime to an ovation from the sellout crowd of 20,801.
A giveaway by defender Kyle Fisher in the sixth minute set the tone for both clubs. Looking to clear the ball, Fisher passed it right to Roma’s Diego Perotti, who found Dzeko alone in the 18-yard-box for his seventh goal of the pre-season.
The goal came less than a minute after Drogba’s chip shot rang off goalkeeper Alisson’s crossbar.
"We didn’t start well," said Biello. "We were a little nervous. You can’t make mistakes and you can’t lose the ball because you won’t see it again for a long time."
The visitors wasted no time highlighting the gap in skill between Major League Soccer and Serie A. A.S. Roma passed the ball effortlessly, kept possession with significant ease and timed their runs to perfection.
The Italians went up 2-0 in the 21st minute when Mohamed Salah found a hole between defenders Victor Cabrera and Donny Toia to hit Nainggolan in stride. The Belgian international gave goalkeeper Eric Kronberg no chance.
The Impact weren’t without their fair share of chances in the half. The home side even outshot Roma 8-6 after the first 45 minutes.
Choiniere hit the post in the 30th, and Alisson made a miraculous recovery to stop Drogba on the rebound.
Near the end of the half, Michael Salazar missed three glorious chances within the span of a minute, including a partial break where he shot right on the ‘keeper.
"We definitely created chances," said Biello. "I can’t think of an MLS match where we created that many chances. We hit a post, we hit a crossbar and we had breakaways. A little more finishing, and the result could have gone our way."