The Montreal Impact finally got a victory after a month-long wait, even if it was by the slightest of margins.
Montreal opened its CONCACAF Champions League campaign with a nail-biting win, beating El Salvador's C.D. FAS 1-0 at Saputo Stadium on Tuesday.
Riding a six-game losing streak in Major League Soccer, the victory was a welcome change for an Impact side that has had little to celebrate this season. In last place in the league, Montreal's last victory came five weeks ago.
But in tournament play on Tuesday, Marco Di Vaio headed home the winner in the first half, and Montreal desperately held on to the lead in the game's final minutes after a sending-off reduced the Impact to 10 men with 20 minutes to play.
"It feels good to win, to have started this competition on the right foot," said defender Hassoun Camara, who was shown the red card for a studs-up challenge. "We're having trouble in the league, but there's satisfaction and relief today. Now we know that we can play well despite adversity. When there's cohesion, when everyone pulls in the same direction, good things happen."
In the 72nd minute, Camara lost control of the ball and slid after it, colliding with FAS' Raul Renderos. The Salvadoran midfielder, clutching his thigh, was taken off the pitch on a stretcher. Renderos was back on the field a minute later to the ire of the Montreal faithful.
"I had the ball on a counter attack, and I saw the opponent coming at me strong," said Camara, who was sent off for the slide tackle. "For me, that was a 50-50 challenge. It's unfortunate. I thought the referee was a bit harsh. A few apologies on my part would have been enough."
Frank Klopas thought the Costa Rican referee Hugo Cruz was harsh, too, when the Impact manager was expelled from the game just 10 minutes after his defender made the shameful walk to the dressing room. Klopas, upset about a free-kick call for FAS deep in Montreal's half, was ejected for leaving his technical area.
"My box is one of the smallest I've ever seen," said Klopas, who won't be able to manage the Impact in the team's next Champions League match versus FAS on Aug. 20. "Sometimes I'm walking up and down. The official warned me. But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it's very difficult to stay there.
"At the same time, there's some frustration when you don't get certain calls. I have to protect my team and my players. Obviously, stepping out of box, you don't even realize it at moments."
After the ejections, FAS (0-1-0) pressed for the equalizer, but could not make the most of the man advantage. Without Camara or Klopas, Montreal kept C.D. FAS at bay in the final minutes. Goalkeeper Evan Bush came up with a big save in the 82nd, and the Impact defence did the rest, clearing Bush's penalty box with resolve.
With the win, Montreal (1-0-0) now leads its Group 3 opposition — FAS and the New York Red Bulls — by three points after just one Champions League match. New York plays its first game of the tournament at the end of August. Only the winner of the group will advance to the eight-team knockout stage.
The Champions League is an annual club tournament that involves 24 teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Montreal is representing Canada in the competition after winning the Amway Canadian Championship in June.
The Impact are now 6-0-2 at home in the club's third Champions League appearance. Montreal has not conceded in its last 405 minutes of CCL play.
On Tuesday, the club's starting 11 left no doubt about Klopas' intentions.
With the exceptions of captain Patrice Bernier, who came on as a substitute in the second half, and Heath Pearce, who was left out of the line-up entirely, Montreal's roster suggested nothing but a win would do.
"Now that we have an opportunity to advance and be in this tournament, it's important that we do whatever we can to advance," said Klopas. "I'm not saying that the MLS season is not important, but now I know how important this tournament is for this team.
"We're going to put everything that we can to try to advance. It's very important for us and the club and the organization and for our fans for us to advance."
For the first time in several weeks, the Impact dominated large chunks of a game. At the interval, shots on target were 4-0 in favour of the Impact.
One those was Di Vaio's. The Italian striker found the back of the net in the 21st when his well-placed precision header beat FAS 'keeper Luis Contreras to give the Impact an early lead. Left all alone in front of goal, Di Vaio timed his run to perfection and connected with a cross from Felipe.
It was more of the same for much of the second half. The Impact dictated the run of play in midfield, but failed to convert golden opportunities in the final third. Bush was untested until the 66th minute when he stopped a tight-angle shot from FAS' Jonathan Joya.
Montreal plays its next Champions League match against FAS in El Salvador before playing home-and-away against the Red Bulls on Sept. 27 and Oct. 22.
From Santa Ana, El Salvador, FAS is one of the most popular soccer teams in the small Central American nation. Playing in the Salvadoran Premier League, the team began their 2014 campaign last Saturday with a 1-0 loss. FAS last won the CONCACAF Champions League, then called the Champions' Cup, in 1979.
FAS travelled to Montreal with just 14 players, and without its head coach.
"Next game, we will definitely have a strong offensive 11," said FAS' assistant coach Emiliano Pedrozo through a translator. "We want to play the way we played in the last minutes of this game. Going home, we will have a good result in El Salvador."
Elsewhere in the Champions League on Tuesday, defending champions Cruz Azul drew 1-1 with Costa Rican side Alajuelense, while Honduras' Deportivo Olimpia beat Alpha United of Guyana 1-0.