Montreal Impact defying expectations
The USL-1 club needs to earn a draw in its final two games to qualify for the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League
They weren't supposed to get this far.
When the Montreal Impact lost 1-0 to Toronto FC in the opening game of the Canadian club championship back in May, it supposedly confirmed what every soccer fan in the country already knew: The Impact, who play in United Soccer Leagues First Division, couldn't possibly compete against a team from Major League Soccer, the top pro soccer league in the United States and Canada.
But it was the Impact who emerged as the winner of the three-team round-robin competition, beating out Toronto and the Vancouver Whitecaps, also of the USL-1, as they were crowned the club champions of Canada.
In doing so, Montreal earned the right to serve as Canada's sole representative at the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League, a 16-team tournament featuring the best clubs from across North and Central America, and the Caribbean.
It's been five months since suffering that loss to Toronto, and Montreal has kept proving the doubters wrong. With three wins and tie in four games, the Impact currently sit in first place in Group C of the Champions League with 10 points, ahead of Mexican powerhouse Atlante (five points), Olimpia of Honduras (four points) and Trinidad and Tobago's Joe Public FC (three points).
Coming off impressive back-to-back road wins in Trinidad and Honduras, the Impact only need to earn a tie in their final two games – including a home contest against Olimpia on Tuesday (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET) – in order to advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Proving the doubters wrong
Defying expectations and silencing the critics has been one of the central themes behind Montreal's Champions League campaign thus far.
"We knew it was going to be tough and that we'd be playing against good teams, but we also knew that there's a good chance that they might underestimate us, and I think to a certain extent that happened," Impact defender Adam Braz told CBCSports.ca.
"Right now, we're one of the top teams in CONCACAF and that's a great achievement considering what people thought we were going to do in this competition. We knew we were going to give everybody a run, we knew what kind of team we were," added Impact midfielder Sandro Grande.
Solid defensive play has been the foundation of the team's success on the field. Including a two-game playoff against Nicaraguan club Real Esteli that it had to win to even reach the group stage, the Impact have conceded a measly two goals in six Champions League games.
Grande explained that Montreal plays a different style of soccer compared with other teams in the tournament.
"We play a European style – well-organized defensively," the Montreal native said. "When we have a chance to go forward we attack, and when we defend we defend with nine guys. If you look at the UEFA Champions League, a lot of games end 0-0 because of this.
"Our success is due to the fact we're well-organized, we know our strengths and weakness, and we try to work together at all times."
Braz concurs: "Defensively, we try to be a compact and make it hard for the opposition, limit certain spaces. … We try to get players back behind the ball and clog up areas, and then when we win the ball we try to push it forward and use the transition game to our advantage because we have a lot of speed."
Jordan solid between the posts
Braz, also a Montreal native, believes goalkeeper Matt Jordan has played a major role in helping the team maintain an unbeaten record in the competition.
"He's very vocal back there and helps the defenders a lot. We know if we do give up a scoring chance, there's a good possibility he'll come up with big save. He's done a great job for us. We have total confidence in him," said Braz, who played for Toronto FC last year.
Indeed, Jordan has been brilliant for Montreal.
After a 2-0 loss to the Impact in Montreal on Sept. 17, Joe Public FC coach Keith Griffith boasted that "the next time we meet the Impact at home, we'll beat them by four goals clear, for sure," before adding that Jordan "can't be that brilliant again."
But while opponents are awe-struck by Jordan's sheer athleticism and penchant for making acrobatic saves, Grande has been impressed with the American goalkeeper's concentration level and ability to stay focused at all times.
"I think sometimes it's harder to play for a team like us when you don't face as many shots as you normally do with another team. When you face one or two scoring chances, you know they're going to be good, so you have to be on your toes and Matt has been great for us," Grande said.
"We're very lucky to have a guy like Matt in goal."
Montreal's success in the Champions League has also made soccer fans realize that, perhaps, the gap in quality between the USL and MLS isn't as great they might think.
"There is a certain difference when you look at certain players that play in MLS, but overall, there are teams in the USL can compete at the MLS-level", Braz opined.
"It's easy for people to say that the MLS is much better, but those people are totally wrong. I can attest to that because I've played in both leagues."
Grande concedes that there is a noticeable gap between the two leagues, pointing out that MLS can attract top foreign players the calibre of David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel and Cuauhtemoc Blanco that the USL could only dream of landing.
"Any USL team can beat any MLS team on any given day. Over a long season, maybe not, but in a tournament like the Champions League, where you only have six games, any USL team can beat a MLS team," Grande said.
As for Montreal's future in the Champions League, both Braz and Grande admit there's a buzz in the Impact locker-room these days, but none of the players are taking for granted that the team will qualify for the quarter-finals.
"We know the job's not done. There are two games left and we know we have to get a result in one of them to assure qualification," Braz said.
"We have to play [Tuesday's game against Olimpia] like we did all the others and be ready to work hard. We beat them in Honduras and I think we can beat them at home. We showed that we're not less than anybody else, but we would make a big mistake if we thought we are favourites going into the match," Grande warned.