Los Angeles, Houston, Kansas City and San Jose have been able to rely on their depth to help them through the group phase, a luxury that the Impact discovered they didn't have.
After a 3-0 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium on Tuesday, the only chance - and a very unlikely one - that the Impact have left of progressing to the quarterfinals is to defeat CD Heredia 6-0 next week and then hope San Jose only beats Heredia by a 1-0 margin in October.
In a group made up of three teams where only one progresses to the quarterfinals, there was always going to be very little room for error. In their opening game, a slender 1-0 win over San Jose at Stade Saputo wasn’t a great result for the Impact considering that the Earthquakes played with a predominantly second-string side and that goal differential would potentially become an important factor in deciding a tiebreaker.
Things got very complicated for the Impact when they lost to Heredia 1-0 in Guatemala City. Coach Marco Schällibaum controversially decided to leave his star players behind in Montreal to preserve them for the team’s ensuing league fixture with the Houston Dynamo (one the Impact went on to win 5-0). The Impact's makeshift lineup was poor throughout, and Heredia finally found the decisive breakthrough in the dying minutes of the game, just shortly after Blake Smith had squandered a rare opportunity.
Schällibaum decided to leave league leading scorer, Marco Di Vaio, out of Montreal's starting XI for Tuesday’s crucial game with San Jose, a decision that the Swiss boss later explained was prompted by the fact that Di Vaio “wasn’t fresh” after having played the full 90 minutes on Saturday against Columbus. Brazilian playmaker Felipe was dropped to the bench as well, which was probably more of a technical decision, because forwards Andrew Wenger and Daniele Paponi aren't particularly good at leading the line on their own.
Wenger and Paponi played together up top in a 4-4-2, and despite creating a slew of terrific opportunities neither of them could score. It was one miss after another. The Impact created five excellent scoring chances to San Jose’s two and yet found themselves down a goal at halftime. The game could have easily been already out of reach.
When Wenger came off later in the second half after yet another disappointing performance, one couldn’t help think of what the score would have been had Jesse Marsch picked Darren Mattocks in the 2012 draft instead.
As appalling as the Impact’s finishing was in the game, the defending wasn’t much better. San Jose didn’t do a whole lot offensively, but still managed three goals due to some very lackadaisical marking and clearances. A long trip to California and a short turnaround from Saturday’s game clearly took a physical toll on Montreal’s aging center back partnership of Matteo Ferrari and Alessandro Nesta. In an ideal world, fresher players like Karl Ouimette and Wandrille Lefevre would have started the game instead, but neither is very reliable just yet.
The reality is that the Impact’s roster simply wasn't deep enough. Houston, Los Angeles, Kansas City and most likely San Jose will all qualify from their Champions League groups having made the most of their ‘B’ teams. That the Impact would have needed their ‘A’ side in all of their games to progress is indicative of the team’s top-heavy roster.
The Champions League will be for another time. For now, the playoffs are well within the Impact's sight and for a team that’s only in its second season in MLS, that's already a great achievement.