Montreal's commitment to CCL pays off with dramatic success

By Ridge Mahoney

“Keep a zero at the back.”

Beating a team as famous and powerful as Club America in the Concacaf Champions League final won’t be simple in any regard, yet the credo uttered by Montreal defender Laurent Ciman is a good starting point. Nobody expects the Impact to emerge from the imposing Azteca Wednesday unscathed but the game starts at zero and the closer to that number the Impact finishes the better its chances will be.

Four years removed from an agonizing near-miss by Real Salt Lake, which took a 2-2 tie back to Rio Tinto Stadium in the 2011 finals but lost the home leg, 1-0, the Impact meets Club America winless (0-2-2) in MLS play yet on the brink of an historic achievement. History is the last thing on the minds of head coach Frank Klopas and his players, who have been in Mexico since last week preparing for the first leg Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, UDN, Unimas).

“We have our tactics, and we have to follow them from beginning to end, not start doing just anything, and keep well-organized,” said Ciman, who played in Belgium for more than a decade before signing with Montreal in January. “It’ll be very important against America. We can’t get there and be afraid of anyone. We didn’t get there by chance. We have to be confident in ourselves, and we’ll see for the rest. In a football game, anything can happen.”

Montreal is battle-tested after winning both of its knockout rounds on away goals. It tied the first leg of the quarterfinals against Pachuca, 2-2, and in one of the most courageous performances by an MLS team in this competition it stunned Pachuca when Cameron Porter scored in stoppage time. In the semifinals, Montreal took a 2-0 victory at home against Alajuelense and when the Impact bagged two goals in the return leg, it held the away goals edge by which a 4-4 aggregate tilted in its favor.

So the margins of success for Montreal have been razor-thin even if the games have been high-scoring. That hasn’t always been the case for MLS teams in Concacaf. Since the current format of group play followed by knockout rounds determined its first champion in 2009, only RSL has reached the finals. On the surface, that is not such a bad record, but the dispiriting dominance of Mexican teams reads like a Who’s Who: four Mexican teams -- Atlante, Pachuca, Monterrey (three times) and Cruz Azul -- have won the title, and three -- Cruz Azul (twice), Santos (twice) and Toluca -- have reached the finals.

Concacaf opposition has improved since the 2009-10 final four, which was comprised entirely of Mexican teams. Three of the eight quarterfinalists this year were from Costa Rica. Yet the dominance shown by Club America while romping past Herediano, 6-0, in the second leg of the semifinals has raised worries that Montreal might suffer the same fate as did Toronto FC three years ago against Santos Laguna. It won the first leg, 2-1, and took a 6-1 thumping in the second game.

Club America announced Monday the first leg at Azteca is sold out, which translates to about 105,000 rabid fans of Las Aguilas packed into a towering, imposing edifice. Montreal has sold about 58,000 tickets for its home leg at Olympic Stadium (capacity is approximately 66,000). The supposed advantage of playing the second leg at home will be irrelevant if Club America stampedes Montreal on Wednesday.

Yet against Pachuca and Alajuelense Montreal has shown grit, determination and poise. The well-traveled Dominic Oduro is experiencing a rebirth, Jack McInerney and Ignacio Piatti have scored timely goals, and Ciman is proving to be a revelation on the back line. A broken arm suffered by Justin Mapp, who led the team with eight assists last year, in the first league game of the season hasn’t derailed Montreal’s attack. It has scored seven goals in four CCL matches and only two in the same number of league games.

Montreal, which won its first-round group with 10 points and ended up seeded fourth among the eight quarterfinalists, began training in Mexico on Feb. 9 and played two preseason games to get ready for the regional championship. MLS teams extol the virtues of the CCL, yet their primary objective in February is conditioning and training for the regular season. Montreal has, instead, taken the competition very seriously to dramatic success.

Unlike its MLS counterpart, Club America isn’t taking a break from league play for the CCL. It lost to Queretaro, 4-0, last weekend and on Sunday tangles with archrival Chivas de Guadalajara before heading north. It is in sixth place with three matches to play in the Torneo Clausura regular season. Backed by a huge crowd, it will be pushing the tempo early and hard.

“They’ll want to pressure us straightaway, score from the get-go,” said Ciman. “They’re playing in front of their crowd. They got whacked this weekend. They’ll want to make amends. It won’t be easy, we know that.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber periodically restates the league’s commitment to international competition and the importance of its regional club competition, but teams just don’t take it all that seriously. Montreal beefed up its squad during the offseason thanks to a double-dip of allocation money for advancing to the CCL quarterfinals and missing the playoffs, and without that kind of commitment from every league representative every year, the results will be much more miss than hit. Yet by postponing two league games, MLS has at least provided some kind of competitive incentive. That's a good step.

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