After a devastating start to the season, Patrice Bernier would love to see the Montreal Impact head into the World Cup break on a high note.
The Impact (2-6-4) host D.C. United on Wednesday before a two-week respite from Major League Soccer, and Bernier says a tough defeat against third-place United (6-4-4) could hurt the team's morale, and undo much of their recent success.
"You want to finish on a high, with positive emotions," the Impact midfielder said after practice this week. "We want to start the second half of the season with good energy, so it's important to take points from a conference rival. We haven't quite reached our full potential yet. We have to use everything we've done over the last few weeks, use that intensity, and finish with something to build on before the two-week break."
After stumbling out to a horrible start, the tide may be turning for the Impact.
While still at the bottom of the MLS standings, with only 10 points from 12 games, Montreal has strung together a few convincing performances in the last four weeks. The team has only lost once in its last six games (3-1-2) in all competitions, has posted consecutive clean sheets, and is unbeaten at home in its last three. The Impact haven't conceded at Saputo Stadium in the last 206 minutes.
What's more, the Impact are flying high after taking home the Amway Canadian Championship last week, beating their Toronto FC rivals in the second leg of the final on home soil.
"It's good to walk with your chest up a little, with broad shoulders and with more confidence," Impact coach Frank Klopas said of the team's newfound optimism. "But you have to stay level-headed and continue to work. We can't let anything get to our head. The attitude and the mentality have to be right — and then we can enjoy the break."
Montreal is facing a consistent D.C. United club on a good stretch of their own. Ben Olsen's men have only lost twice in their last 12 contests — both defeats coming in one-goal decisions on the road.
D.C. is stingy at the back. They've conceded an MLS third-best 14 goals on the season — only Toronto (13) and Los Angeles (11) have surrendered less. Goalie Bill Hamid has only been beaten three times in his last six games. And like the Impact, United have recorded back-to-back clean sheets.
At the other end of the pitch, Fabian Espindola is playing equally well. The Argentine striker, who has scored in three consecutive contests, leads the team in almost every offensive category. He has seven goals, five assists, 34 shots, and 14 shots on target so far this season.
"They have a team where if we lose our concentration or focus at any moment, it can hurt you," said Klopas. "They have a lot of talented players in the final third that can create problems. We cannot lose our focus.
"It's a tricky game because you can't be thinking about the break. We've worked so hard that we cannot relax right now. The attitude has to be the way it's been in the last couple of games. If we don't, we're going to make it very difficult on ourselves."
Klopas's men seemed to lose their focus the last time these two teams met on May 17, settling for the 1-1 draw after conceding late to DCU's Eddie Johnson. The Impact took the lead in the 56th minute courtesy of Jack McInerney, but coughed it up five minutes from time. Montreal's lax defending allowed Espindola to send a cross in the penalty box to a loosely-covered Johnson, who headed it home.
Wary of a similar outcome, Klopas made sure his team focused on their box defending in training on Monday.
Bernier says the Impact squad that blew the lead at RFK Stadium last month is long gone.
"The group is more solid in defence," he said. "We aren't giving up many chances. Up front, we're creating chances and we're winning tight games. We're more confident and better organized now. We're working better as a team. We're giving up fewer freebies than we did at the start of the season."
The Impact could be without the services of midfielder Justin Mapp, who hurt his groin in the Canadian Championship final. Mapp, who played three games with D.C. United in 2002, didn't practise with his teammates on Monday, instead doing various strength exercises along the sidelines.
Officially match fit for the first time in more than six months, Spanish defender Adrian Lopez was on the pitch practising with the team. Lopez tore his right ACL in September and underwent surgery the following month. Although he is cleared by the team doctors, he will likely make his first appearance for the club after the two-week break.