MONTREAL — The timing was perfect for Remi Garde’s first victory as coach of the Montreal Impact.
A 1-0 win in their home opener on Saturday over rival Toronto FC, the defending Major League Soccer champions, earned the first points in three outings this season for the former Lyon boss.
"It was special because it wasn’t just another game," said Garde. "We’re glad to get the three points and play a strong match overall, so obviously it’s very satisfying."
Jeisson Vargas, a 20-year-old rookie from Chile, scored his first MLS goal in the 41st minute of a game that, with sharper finishing, could easily have had more scoring at both ends of the field.
It was a second setback in as many league outings for Toronto, who are balancing regular season play with a larger goal of trying to become the first MLS squad to win the CONCACAF Champions League.
That made ideal conditions for the Impact to pull off an upset.
Toronto finished off a rousing win over Tigres in a Champions League quartrerfinal on Tuesday, then had to fly back from Mexico, get some rest and then go to Montreal to face their fiercest rivals on artificial turf at Olympic Stadium.
They found themselves against an opponent set up to defend and counterattack. With striker Matteo Mancosu injured, leaving no fully fit forwards, Montreal kept players back clogged the middle of the field to try to win balls and get them upfield to striker-for-a-day Ignacio Piatti.
It paid off when Samuel Piette won a ball near the halfway line and fed it up to Piatti. Three TFC defenders closed on the Montreal scoring star, who slipped the ball to Vargas alone on the right side to slice a shot inside the near post and draw a roar from the 26,005 spectators.
Toronto had the ball 64.2 per cent of the game, but only started getting quality chances in the second half.
"There were a few moments when we missed the final pass but for about 60 minutes we were playing possession for the sake of playing possession," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. "We weren’t actually trying to get behind their back line, get to the end zone, get into dangerous areas, put their back line in tough situations.
"If you’re playing a team that’s on the counter, if you just keep passing in front of them, eventually you’re going to lose it and that’s setting yourself up for one of those moments. And they got one of them in the first half.
Playing CONCACAF while also trying to win in league play is a challenge. The Impact started the 2015 season 0-3-2 while making their run to the Champions League final.
"It has something to do with it because you’re flipping competitions," said Vanney. "For example, when you go to Tigres and you have an edge and you’re playing to make sure you maintain that edge, it’s a different mindset than coming into Montreal and going after it and trying to win the game."
It was the first time in three games the Impact took a lead and right away they wanted more. Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the intermission but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.
Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Saphir Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot. That’s when Toronto put Nicolas Hassler and Marco Delgado into the game for Ager Aketxe and Hagglund.
Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide.
The visitors looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal-line. But Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.
For Montreal, it was a relief not to give up any early goals after falling behind 2-0 in each of their first two matches.
"The first 45 minutes today, they weren’t very dangerous," said Garde. "We didn’t concede too many opportunities.
"They kept the ball so we had to drop deeper than we thought, but we coped very well. We were patient and we created one or two situations in their back because we knew that when they defend high they’re not very comfortable when you put the ball behind their back line."
Garde acknowledged that travel and fatigue, not to mention artificial turf, which he called "big team" problems, made conditions tougher for the visitors, but he joked "if they want to exchange their situation in the CONCACAF league, I’ll accept it."