Over 33,000 made the trip to the Big O to see history in the making. The Montreal Impact have gone further than ever in the CONCACAF Champions League making it all the way to the semi-finals. The first game of the home and away series against L.D. Alajuelense from Costa Rica took place in Montreal. After advancing in dramatic fashion against Mexican side Pachuca courtesy of a goal in the 4th minute of injury time the city has become wrapped up in soccer. The hope for the team seems to have returned after a very difficult season last year.
After collecting their breaths and even playing the opening game of the MLS season (a 1-0 defeat in Washington), the Impact settled into preparation for Alajuelense. Pachuca was all about pace whereas the Costa Rican side is more of a ball possession team. Coach Frank Klopas also had to deal with the fact that he would be going into the game without winger Justin Mapp due to injury (fractured and dislocated elbow that will keep him out of action for 4 months) and himself (Klopas got a red card in the final game against Pachuca). The second would be solved with assistant coach Mauro Biello stepping in to direct the team from the sidelines on the evening of the game. Replacing Justin Mapp would be more problematic. Last season’s MVP, Andres Romero, is still out with an injury so the task fell to Dominic Oduro. Oduro, who has started two games as the lone striker previous for the Impact, was taking on a new position with the team, but with his blazing speed it makes sense.
Another interesting line-up decision was the starting of rookie striker Cameron Porter. Yes, he did show plenty as he scored the last gasp goal in the quarter-finals, but playing a whole game is a whole different kettle of fish. Klopas made the right decision and seems to have a good player on his hands. Porter played the entire 90 minutes and all of it was positive. First of all, he has size. There were many occasions during the game where he used is size to shield off Alajuelense players and hold up the ball to allow his teammates to join in on the attack. Plus he is good in the air being Evan Bush’s most frequent target on goal kicks. Second, he has pace. Finally, he demonstrated that the technical side of his game is up to par through several of the tricky little moves he made. They have put themselves in a good position to advance.
Right from the beginning it was apparent that Alajuelense was ill prepared for the type of game the Impact was bringing. They seemed taken aback at their speed and did not have numbers in the back. It took only 10 minutes for Montreal to break down the Costa Rican team’s defense for the game’s first goal.
Oduro went on a run down the right side of the pitch and played the ball across into the box to around the penalty spot. Porter cleverly backheeled the ball to Piatti, who then cut inside his defender and lashed a ball into the net off the underside of the crossbar. It was quick and it was deadly. It also signaled the impact that offensive midfielder Piatti was going to have on the game. His changes of direction seemed to fool the Alajuelense defenders and he had good chances to score in the 12th and 18th minutes which just went wide of the net. This was his best game of the season as he was involved in almost every Impact offensive foray until being subbed out in the 76th minute for Patrice Bernier. 1-0 Montreal.
The crowd exploded with delight in the home side, who were wearing their white and royal blue kits, scoring the game’s first goal so early in the contest, but also that it was fan favourite Piatti who broke out of his slump. Fans had barely settled down when the team won a corner kick. Holding midfielder Marco Donadel took it and played it to the penalty spot aiming for the bald head of central defender Laurent Ciman. Ciman got a piece of the ball and it bounced down to the ground. First to get a foot to it was Impact defender Victor Cabrera. Though he did not get great “wood” on the shot it still found its way into the far side of the Alajuelense net. Two goals in four minutes and a 2-0 lead. The crowd was delirious! 2-0 Montreal.
One of the nightmares that the Montreal soccer fans had to live through last season was a defensive corps that could not stop anything. They seemed to be as leaky as a sieve. With the bringing in veteran central defenders Ciman and Bakary Soumare it seems to have solidified things. For the remaining 76 minutes of the game Montreal did not allow Alajuelense to have much of a sniff at their net. Bush was not really tested. The revelation on defense so far this season has been newly acquired Donny Toia at the left fullback position. Obtained in the Chivas Dispersal Draft this past winter, he has been a pleasant surprise and seems to be the answer in a position that has been a problem since the team got rid of Jeb Brovsky. Toia is a compact 5’8”, but has not been overpowered or outpaced by opposing players so far.
Montreal held onto the two early goals for a 2-0 lead in the aggregate series. The victory was important, but even more important was that they did not allow Alajuelense to score as away goals are very important in this competition. I only have two negatives to say about the game: one is the refereeing. I know that we should expect it being weak, but for an important CONCACAF competition you would think they could find some of quality. Second, is that when Dilly Duka was taken out of the line-up at half time in what was described by the team as preventative because he had tweaked something I hope that is the case. He has really started off the season well and the Impact cannot afford to lose another starting winger to injury.
Next up for the Impact is a game on Saturday afternoon on the road against the New England Revolution. Their next Champions League game is the return leg in Costa Rica on April 7th.
-Goals: 1st Half:
10th minute: Montreal – Ignacio Piatti
14th minute: Montreal – Victor Cabrera
-Shots on Goal: Montreal – 7
Alajuelense – 1
-Corners: Montreal – 9
Alajuelense – 8
-Final Score: Montreal – 2
Alajuelense – 0