Is the Impact’s appearance in the CCL finals a harbinger of things to come, or merely a one-off, or to be more precise, a two-off?
The Impact is within perhaps 90 minutes of history to be claimed Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2, UniMas) with a victory or goalless tie against Club America. More than 61,000 fans are expected at the Olympic Stadium to witness what could be an historic night for soccer in North America.
Or it could be a crushing disappointment, as was the 2011 second leg. Monterrey pulled off a 1-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium that left the dreams of Real Salt Lake and MLS in tatters. The scenario then was much the same as it is now, with the MLS team holding the away-goals advantage after tying the first leg. Four years ago, Monterrey parlayed its 2-2 tie at home into a 3-2 aggregate triumph, and Montreal is just the second MLS team to make it this far.
If the second leg Wednesday finishes 1-1, the teams will go to extra time and then penalty kicks if necessary to determine the regional champion. Club America wins the title if it takes the second leg or scores at least two goals while tying.
Wednesday promises to be dramatic and spectacular and, in the finest tradition of Concacaf, bizarre and unforgettable. The club has asked fans attending the game to display a mosaic consisting of 50,000 blue, white, and black placards. The hashtag #MLS4MONTREAL is making the rounds of social media. MLS commissioner Don Garber has confirmed he will attend, as will officials from Concacaf. On Monday, the Impact announced that approximately 2,000 more tickets would be sold for the second leg and that capacity would be 61,004.
Yet once the crowd has departed and the confetti swept up and the lights turned off, what then? Where goeth MLS and the CCL? To the next level, whatever that might be? Or does it remain an entertaining yet secondary enterprise, never destined to share the stage with an MLS Cup trophy?
“I think the league and all the clubs in the league are committed to winning the CCL and want to see it happen,” says Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, who has coached more than two dozen CCL games. Two years ago, Seattle fell just short of the finals with a 2-1 aggregate loss to Santos Laguna after beating Tigres in the quarterfinals. “That’s a common goal.
“Teams are getting benefits now that you weren’t getting a few years ago. The ability to reschedule games so you’re not playing three games in a week helps you, although it hurts you later when you have to double up and triple up on games later in your season. The willingness of your ownership group to allow your team to acclimate and the ability to take charter flights, all of those are resources that the league is making available and the ownership groups are making available for teams to have success in the competition.”
MLS rearranged two games for the Impact this season and in past years has juggled games for other CCL participants. No team has gone to the lengths of resources and expense to prepare as has Montreal. The Impact spent 17 days in Mexico to train for its quarterfinal series against Pachuca in February and for the finals left six days early to get ready for the first leg of the finals at Azteca Stadium.
Schmid thinks that regardless of the outcome Wednesday, coach Frank Klopas and his players may pay the price for their endeavor further down the road. Last season, the Impact struggled to a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference as it battled through the Amway Canadian Championship to reach the CCL group phase and then finish first in Group 4 against the Red Bulls and FAS of El Salvador.
“At some point, there’s a little bit of a payback there in terms of players fatiguing and possible injuries later on, because it becomes a very lengthy year because we don’t have a summer break at all,” says Schmid, whose team will play in the 2015-16 version of the CCL that starts in mid-summer. “You’re looking at players that are playing serious soccer from the middle of February all the way through, if you’re in the playoffs, to late November. That’s a long stretch without a break.”
Montreal is 0-2-2 so far in the MLS season and will have to play catchup once its MLS schedule resumes. Club America is seventh in Liga MX with two games to play and needs a few results to finish in the top eight and make the playoffs. Without the burden of league games the past two weekends, Montreal should be the fresher team yet Club America has decades of tradition and success to uphold.
“For sure, Club America is going to take this last game very, very seriously,” says Schmid. “It’s a lot of money for the club to go to the world club championship and a lot of money for the players as well. I think they put out a decent lineup for sure in Mexico City and hoped that the altitude and atmosphere at Azteca would be enough to be helpful and obviously they dominated the game but didn’t get goals. Now they know they’re in a situation where they have to win [the series].”