Impact look to keep MLS playoff hopes alive
It wasn't easy for the Montreal Impact to sit idle while some of the teams they are chasing for a playoff spot were picking up points in the Major League Soccer standings.
The Impact, in seventh-place (12-14-3), will end a two-week break in their schedule when they visit the second-place Chicago Fire (14-8-5) on Saturday night.
With 29 games under their belt, Montreal has played the most matches so far in the Eastern Conference. During their break, the teams they need to catch used up some of their games in hand, and some pulled a little father ahead.
The Impact have only five games left in their inaugural MLS season and sit two points behind sixth-place D.C. United and three behind Columbus, who hold the fifth and final playoff spot. Each has two games in hand. Fourth-place Houston is four points ahead with one game in hand.
"The helplessness part is the results going against you," coach Jesse Marsch said this week. "But I still feel firmly that this is in our hands right now.
"You could maybe do the math where we could win most of our games and still not make it, but I believe that if we handle our business, week in and week out, that we have our fate in our own hands. That's been the message. That's our focus. Now we have a big challenge to go on the road and get a result on Saturday against a team that's done well."
The Impact mounted a charge with a five-game winning streak in August in which they outscored their opponents 12-2. But in their last outing on Sept. 1, they gave up a goal in stoppage time for a crushing 2-1 loss in Columbus.
Since then, they got help when eighth-place New England beat Columbus, but lost ground to Houston, which beat Salt Lake. Chicago won twice, including 2-1 on Wednesday in Toronto, to move eight points clear of Montreal with two games in hand. The MLS schedule was relatively light the past two weeks because national teams were playing World Cup qualifiers.
"You want to see them at least draw so they don't get too far ahead of you, but at this point it's still up in the air," said goalkeeper Troy Perkins. "If we win a couple in a row, that puts pressure on the teams around us."
Veteran midfielder Patrice Bernier wants no part of scoreboard-watching.
"You can't think about the other teams," he said. "You wish certain teams could help you out, but we have our own destiny to take care of and they have theirs.
"We have to make sure we get the points, so we don't have to say 'if this, if that.' If you don't get the points you need, you can only look at yourself. If you look at the calendar, all the teams are meeting each other, so some team is going to be taking points from somebody."
The Impact are a different squad than the one that played to a 1-1 draw with Chicago before 55,000 fans in their MLS home debut at Olympic Stadium on March 17. That game saw the expansion side pick up its first MLS point and captain Davy Arnaud score the team's first goal.
They are a more settled, cohesive club, and the addition of Italian veterans Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio in mid-season was a huge boost.
The odds are against them with their rivals holding games in hand and time running out, but Marsch feels they still have a shot at becoming one of the rare expansion teams to make the post-season. After Chicago, they return home to face first-place Kansas City, then play at Houston and Toronto before ending the season Oct. 27 at home against New England.
"At the beginning of the season if you'd have asked me if we could be right here, right now, would you take it, I'd say yes," the coach said. "It's matter of us handling our business down the stretch."
They will be up against one of the league's hottest teams. The Fire are 5-1-1 in their last seven games.
The break allowed the Impact to heal some wounds, however, and they will have their full squad available. That includes midfielder Justin Mapp, who is to return from a hamstring injury, although he is not likely to start.
Marsch will probably go with a back line of Matteo Ferrari, Nelson Rivas, Nesta and Hassoun Camara, who returns from a two-game suspension.
Bernier, who spent the break playing two World Cup qualifiers for Canada, is in midfield with Collen Warner, Arnaud, Felipe Martins and probably Sanna Nyassi, with Di Vaio up front.