Piatti comments cast cloud over surging Montreal Impact

This is the time of year for fans and pundits to stop obsessing over past form and start forecasting the stretch run of the season.

Since no regular-season conference winner has reached the MLS Cup final since 2014, when the Galaxy won the West as well as the title, handicapping the potential finalists is a study on everyone else.

Memories of Seattle’s dramatic run in the final months are crystal clear, but in the other conference, Montreal gave it a good go before its aged roster finally crumbled in the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto FC.

But unlike the Sounders, which won eight and tied four of its last 14 regular-season games, Montreal played the anti-momentum card really well. It won only two of its last eight regular-season games, yet knocked off D.C. United, 4-2,  at RFK in the Knockout Rounds, then dumped the Red Bulls, 3-1, on aggregate. In the conference finals it took a staggering 5-2 aggregate lead in the second game at BMO Field but completely collapsed and conceded five consecutive goals to lose, 7-5.

For most of the season, Montreal has failed to recapture that mojo but lately the swagger has returned. It has won three in a row after an impressive thumping Wednesday of Chicago – which up until a month ago looked like a team quite capable of derailing the TFC juggernaut in a playoff series – and jumped into fifth place. But the euphoria of the faithful ebbed a bit when Ignacio Piatti, scorer of two goals against the Fire and the man on whom the team relies, referred to his contract status while addressing the crowd in a postgame interview on the field.

“I want to continue doing on the field the things that I do, and after that, it's not me who decides, it's the team, it's the president,” Piatti said to reporters. “I just said it because maybe that's it, my last 10 games here, my last season, and I hope to go to the playoffs to finish well. But I'm happy with the whole team. We've won three games in a row and we have to continue like that.”

Piatti, 32, has scored four of Montreal’s eight goals during the streak. After tallying an early goal, rather than take a penalty kick himself after drawing a foul in the penalty area, he deferred to forward Matteo Mancosu, who hadn’t netted in nine games. Mancosu banged home his kick and in the 38th minute Piatti finished off the Fire by scoring his 12th of the season.

Veteran midfielder Patrice Bernier is the team captain but on the field Piatti leads the team.

"Nacho, he's a great player, but he's a great man too and he's a great guy to have around this team,” said Bernier. “And he thought of his teammate. I know they're close, but he gave him the ball to try to get him out of the funk and that's the team. And we're in a good place right now and it shows, and that type of gesture is fantastic, that's what the team needs. He's a leader of this team also, and it shows. He could have just taken it for himself and had goals, but he thought of a teammate to put in the best condition so the team is at its best.”

Piatti, 32, has racked up 47 goals and 22 assists in 87 MLS games (including playoffs) since arriving midway through the 2014 season. His contract runs until next July, but FIFA rules permit a player in the last year of his deal to negotiate on his own in the last six months, so his comments could be an early warning of his intent to leave.

Or, he could simply be leveraging his importance to the team as negotiations with Impact management unfold and pressure to make the playoffs intensifies. Montreal has not emulated the feats of Seattle and Toronto FC, which unlike last year are no so dependent on Nicolas Lodeiro and Sebastian Giovinco, respectively, as they have been in the past.

Lodeiro has registered just three assists during Seattle’s eight-game unbeaten streak; last weekend TFC destroyed Portland, 4-1, with one assist from Giovinco and two goals by wingback Justin Morrow. TFC has the best record in the league at 13-3-8, and is 4-0-1 in games without Giovinco.

“If Jozy [Altidore] and I don’t score, we have other players to do so,” said Giovinco after the Timbers were toppled.

Montreal is 2-2-1 without Piatti, but the victories were home triumphs over Philly and D.C., both of which are well behind Montreal in the standings. Montreal has shored up its leaky defense with Canadian midfielder Samuel Piette, and in May lessened its dependency on Piatti by adding Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili, a potent force who has notched six goals and six assists in 13 games.

The pieces seem to be falling into place at the right time of the season, and Piatti’s play can supersede a few comments directed at team president and majority owner Joey Saputo. The Impact doesn’t look the equal of TFC, Chicago and New York City FC over the long haul but the playoffs are short, abrupt, and sometimes cruel. Last year, with four goals and two assists Piatti drove the Impact to four straight playoff wins before it faltered in Toronto.

Head coach Mauro Biello, wisely, stayed away from the issue when questioned.

“I'm only going to talk about the field,” he said. “Obviously, Nacho in that regard for me, he's one of the best players in the league. I know they're in negotiations right now and he had a tremendous performance tonight and for us it was good that we took the three points.”
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