Image (c) Mila Araujo
The road to glory in the CONCACAF Champions League began 8 months ago in August. Twenty-four teams kicked into action with one common goal: become the greatest team in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. In April, 24 has become 2, and there will be two matches to decide who will conquer the continent. In one corner stands Montreal Impact, who have been somewhat of a Cinderella side in this tournament, and one that has certainly had its fair share of drama in its run. In the other stands the Mexican powerhouse Club América, the most successful club in CONCACAF’s strongest league and owners of 5 continental titles. The Other Half is here to bring you the low-down on this continental showdown.
How did they get here?
For Montreal Impact, it’s easy to wonder how they made the CONCACAF Champions League – they finished with MLS’s worst record in 2014, with 6 wins, 18 losses, and 10 draws. However, the team did win the Canadian Championship, the only way a Canadian side can qualify for CCL. After surviving a scare against NASL side FC Edmonton in the Canadian Championship semifinals, advancing on a stoppage time penalty kick by captain Patrice Bernier, the team won the tournament by defeating Toronto FC 2-1 in the two-legged final to snag Canada’s already-drawn spot in the Champions League, where they joined fellow MLS side New York Red Bulls and CD FAS, of El Salvador. Montreal topped the group, and with a record of 3 wins and 1 draw, landed the fourth seed in the knockouts. Their quarterfinal matchup was against Mexican side Pachuca, and was full of drama. After Montreal escaped Mexico with a 2-2 tie, the team advanced on away goals with a dramatic 1-1 draw at Stade Olympique, where Cameron Porter – in just his second pro game – scored a dramatic equalizer at the death to send the team through. The next test for L’Impact came in the form of Alajuelense, a Costa Rican side who had comfortably taken out another MLS side, DC United, in the quarters. Despite a suspension to head coach Frank Klopas following his ejection from the second leg of the Pachuca tie, Montreal took the first leg at home 2-0, then followed up with a dramatic – and at times, sloppy – 4-2 loss in Costa Rica, advancing on away goals once more.
Club América qualified for CCL through Liga MX, after making the finals of the 2013 Apertura Liguilla, where they fell 5-1 to Leon over two legs. Las Águilas were drawn in a fairly easy group, with leagueless Puerto Rican side Bayamón and Comunicaciones of Guatemala. Like L’Impact, they ended their group stage with 3 wins and 1 draw, and wrapped up the second seed in the knockouts, where they proceeded to embarrassed Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa 5-0 before overturning a 3-0 first-leg deficit against Herediano – also of Costa Rica – with a 6-0 spanking at the Azteca.
How can Montreal win?
The key for Montreal Impact is to keep the score respectable at the Azteca, one of the toughest places to play in the region, in order to stay within striking distance coming home. On top of the crowds of over 50,000, teams also have to struggle with the high altitude in Mexico City, which is 7,350 feet (2,240 meters) above sea level.
Montreal’s key players in this final will be central defenders Laurent Ciman and Bakary Soumaré. These two will be tasked with trying to slow down the potent América strike trio of Oribe Peralta, Darwin Quintero, and Dario Benedetto. Ciman, a Belgian national teamer, was a huge steal for Montreal, who managed to nab him on a fairly inexpensive contract for a player of his caliber, and the team needs him now more than ever.
Frank Klopas’s best gameplan is to take advantage of counterattacks and set pieces. Frank Klopas knows he won’t be able to match América’s talent or depth, so he will have to make sure his defensive shape can limit chances and frustrate Las Águilas. Any offense Montreal produces – and it likely won’t be much, especially with the injury to playmaker Justin Mapp that has him out until the summer – will likely involve star midfielder Ignacio Piatti, who knows how to play for continental glory after winning a Copa Libertadores in 2014 with San Lorenzo.
How can América win?
Going in, they are heavy favorites after winning the 2014 Liga MX Apertura, both in the regular season and Liguilla. If anything, they got even better in between the Apertura and Clausura, signing Dario Benedetto from Xolos Tijuana. Benedetto, an Argentine striker, had four goals in the second leg of their semifinal against Herediano, helping to turn around a 3-0 deficit from the first leg with a 6-0 laugher at home. He joins established star Oribe Peralta, Colombian goal machine Darwin Quintero, and up and comer Martin Zúñiga. Any 3 of these players will be on the pitch at the same time, and each one is lethal. Combine them with service from the South American midfield of captain Rubens Sambueza, Cristian Pellerano, and Osvaldo Martinez, and you have a dominant team loaded with firepower up top; one that can easily overwhelm a rather thin Montreal back line.
The pressure in this tie is on América. They are the favorites, and failure is not an option. However, through CCL, Montreal has been a team of destiny. A team that, despite horrid league form, finished on top of their group. A side that scored on its very last kick of the quarterfinals to get to this stage. Will this Montreal side that has overcome the odds multiple times in this run wrap up a storybook ending, bringing MLS its first-ever CONCACAF Champions League title in front of a sold-out Stade Olympique? Or will it be a predictable affair, with the second leg being nothing more than a formality with América wiping them out at the Azteca? The only certainty in this tie between Canada and Mexico is that this will be a David versus Goliath showdown for continental glory.