The Montreal Impact shut down any upset talk early. Trendy picks to fall to Costa Rican giant Saprissa in Thierry Henry's debut leading the club, the Impact jumped on mistakes at the back from Saprissa to take a 2-0 lead early.
First it was Orji Okwonkwo, smashing home the rebound after a Bojan shot was stopped by Saprissa goalkeeper Aaron Cruz. Then Rommel Quioto doubled the advantage in the 22nd minute, getting the ball on the wing on a counter-attack, charging in and scoring from a tight angle.
With a two-goal cushion, the Impact could try to see out the result, and indeed it wasn't even the hour mark when goalkeeper Clement Diop got word from the referee that he'd end up in the book if he were to continue doddling every time the ball went out for a goal kick.
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No night is easy at the Estadio Saprissa, and the Impact seemed to struggle to get up to speed in their first contest after the preseason. All three substitutions were sacrificed on injured players, with Henry unable to show much of a tactical plan after being forced into two changes in the first half with Rudy Camacho unable to go past the 12th minute and Okwonkwo replaced by Maxi Urruti before the half-hour mark. Henry then had to bring off Quioto down the stretch when he surely would've preferred to add fresh legs in defense.
Saprissa kept pushing and pushing, with former Impact winger Johan Venegas heading in an 80th-minute goal and Ariel Rodriguez finding the equalizer 10 minutes later with the series heading to Montreal even at 2-2.
Those changes hurt Henry's side, whose press out of a 5-2-3 was impressive in the first half and led to mistakes from Saprissa. But as Henry's charges tired, Saprissa was able to find more and more stress points on which it could push. Eventually, Montreal could hold no longer and broke.
Still, the result is a good one for the Impact, with two away goals in the bag and the home leg yet to come. The preseason hadn't given fans in Quebec much reason for optimism, with the only goal in four exhibitions coming from the penalty spot.
Those fans went into Wednesday night unsure how Henry would line his team up and wondering what their team would look like under the direction of the Arsenal and Barcelona legend. What they saw, in the end, was a team unable to put its full tactical plan on display, but one that showed potential as a system that not only can get the Impact into the next round of the region's top competition but also could lead to success in the MLS campaign as well.
Perhaps those in Europe will wake up and shrug upon seeing the result, but those who know Henry from his native France or his time in England may not understand just how tough it can be to go to Central America and come back with a win.
Tigres manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti can explain it to them.
Ferretti's star-studded Tigres team went to El Salvador and fell 2-1 as Henry's side was seeing out the draw. It was another disappointing showing in an international tournament by Tigres, especially with players like Andre-Pierre Gignac in the starting lineup as the club looks to lift the title for the first time in its history. Tigres will be confident they can turn things around next week in front of a friendly crowd at El Volcan, but it was not a good omen for a successful campaign.
Whatever the result portends, it's also a reminder that despite the economic difference in the value of the squads, despite the difference in quality of the infrastructure the teams have at their disposal, a good game plan, a passionate crowd and a lot of effort still can cut through those differences.
It's a lesson that, at least on his first night on the job, Henry avoided learning the hard way.