Tonight, the Montreal Impact could make MLS (and Canadian) football history in the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s time to prendre le train en marche (that’s French for jump on the bandwagon)
UPDATE: Three weeks ago, the Montreal Impact’s Champions League run still felt more than a bit flukish, liable to come to an end at any moment—but since this piece was first published, they’ve survived a wild 4-2 slugfest away at L.D. Alajuelense and, most improbably of all, escaped the Estadio Azteca with a 1-1 draw over Club America in the opening leg of the final. With a win or 0-0 draw tonight at the Stade Olympique (8:00 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2), they’ll become the first MLS club to earn a CCL title. Win or lose, though, they’ve already done a lot to redeem the tournament in the eyes of many fans—and hopefully other clubs, too.
No other sport can boast of anything quite like soccer’s continental club competitions, and while the neglected CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) has made it easy for North American fans to forget that, the Montreal Impact’s exhilarating performance in the tournament’s knockout stages has gone a long way to remind us.
The tournament’s North and Central American counterpart, the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) is, to put it mildly, a more down-to-earth affair. The fact that its level of play is a class or two below European competition is just the beginning. The relative parity of its constituent leagues means you’re as likely to see the CONCACAF equivalent of Stoke vs. Stuttgart as that of Bayern vs. Barcelona, and the tournament schedule is awkwardly offset with Major League Soccer’s, placing the start of the knockout stage squarely in the MLS preseason. Interest among fans is generally low, and seemingly even lower among the clubs themselves, who often field reserve sides throughout the group stage.
And so maybe it wouldn’t be such a surprise if the Montreal Impact—a motley squad of castoffs, journeymen, and former prodigies coming off a last-place season in MLS—were to become the first MLS side to win a CCL title, and inject some much-needed joie de vivre into the competition along the way. Maybe it would actually be perfect.
As MLS has slogged through the dull business of labor talks and settled in for the long haul of a regular season devalued by its ever-expanding playoffs, much of the excitement early in the soccer calendar has been provided by Montreal’s improbable CCL run, which continues tonight in Alajuela, Costa Rica (10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2). If the Impact can avoid a total collapse against L.D. Alajuelense in the second leg of their semifinal, they’ll become the first Canadian club to reach a CONCACAF final, with the chance to become the first MLS side to win a continental title since the L.A. Galaxy lifted the old Champions’ Cup fifteen years ago.
That, coupled with D.C. United’s quarterfinal exit, makes for a compelling enough rooting interest for the small minority of American fans who follow the CCL—even if it’s not an entirely natural fit. Surely we always pictured the league’s first CCL title being won by one of its signature clubs, an old stalwart like the Galaxy or an ambitious upstart like the Seattle Sounders, and not the likes of Montreal, who recorded a league-worst 28 points last season and qualified only by capturing the 2014 Canadian Championship. And perhaps there’s some ignoble, nationalistic displeasure at the possibility of our long-awaited CCL breakthrough being made by the league’s least “American” club; in addition to playing in the culturally distant French Canadian metropolis, only Vancouver employs fewer American players than Montreal.
But it’s been hard to resist Montreal’s charms as they’ve stormed into the tournament’s knockout stage and edged their way towards the final. From the moment they took a scarcely believable 2-0 away lead over Mexican power Pachuca in the first leg of their quarterfinal, the Impact’s CCL campaign has felt as if it were scripted for maximum drama. They eventually coughed up two second-half goals to fly home with a 2-2 draw, and fell behind late in the return leg, but then came the coup de théâtre.
With seconds left in stoppage time, Impact midfielder Calum Mallace hoofed the ball desperately forward and somehow found rookie Cameron Porter, who poked it through the Pachuca keeper’s legs to send Montreal to the semis on away goals and a Stade Olympique crowd of nearly 40,000 into an ecstatic frenzy.
Wouldn’t all of this be less exciting coming from a machine as well-oiled as Bruce Arena’s Galaxy, anyway? The Impact aren’t quite the Island of Misfit Toys, but they’re close enough. EPL veteran Nigel Reo-Coker is on his third MLS club in eight months. His partner in the midfield, Marco Donadel, suited up for seven different Serie A sides before his 30th birthday. Team captain and Montreal native Patrice Bernier was a junior hockey prodigy, because of course he was; Dominic Oduro once dyed his hair to look like a slice of pizza. And manager Frank Klopas, a fiery Greek-born USMNT alum, currently leads the CCL in red cards, with the latest earned for—well, see for yourself.
This may or may not be a side built for long-term—or even short-term—success in Major League Soccer. There’s little, apart from the obvious take it seriously, that other MLS clubs can learn from Montreal’s approach to the CCL, and little reason for fans to expect the league’s lackluster record to improve. The tournament’s myriad shortcomings, fans’ indifference, the logistical hurdles and lack of incentives for MLS clubs to succeed—none of that is changing any time soon.
Tonight in Alajuela, though, none of it will matter. The lights, of course, won’t shine as brightly as they do on a Tuesday night on the other side of the Atlantic. The entrance music won’t be nearly as majestic. History may not weigh very heavily on the Montreal Impact’s shoulders, but they may make history nonetheless, and those of us watching will be glad to be along for the ride.