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Missing out on Champions League a big loss for Montreal Impact

MONTREAL — Moments before the game began, nostalgic banners went up on the east-end stands of Stade Saputo. They depicted Cameron Porter celebrating a goal below the words, “I remember Pachuca 90+4.”

How could they have forgotten? It was only just over a year ago that Porter, a few months after being selected in the third round of the MLS draft, propelled the Montreal Impact into the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League with a marvelous goal in the final seconds of stoppage time against Pachuca. The Impact, against all odds, went on to reach the final, where their dreams of winning the tournament—which at the outset seemed to be an imposibility—were finally dispelled, as they fell to Mexican giant Club America 5-2 on aggregate.

Participating in the North American club tournament has always been a tremendous experience for the Impact, a unique opportunity to grow its club brand and overall relevancy in Montreal. And on Wednesday against Toronto FC, in the second leg of the Canadian Championship semifinal—the tournament which serves as a qualification route for the Champions League—they were denied the opportunity to return by a tactically stringent TFC side. The Impact went into the game needing to overturn a 4-2 deficit from the first leg, but Toronto defended well enough to hold on to a 0-0 draw and progress to the final.

“I have to give credit to Toronto because they deserved it,” Impact coach Mauro Biello said after the game. “They played a good road game, a solid soccer game tonight. We pushed; we gave everything, but we didn’t find the opening. They defended well. We were looking for the goal that might have given us that spark to push on at the end, but we weren’t able to find it.”

CANADIAN CHAMPIONSHIP: Montreal 0-0 Toronto (2-4 agg.) | Vancouver 3-0 Ottawa (3-2 agg.)

Getting the result they needed in the second leg to progress (a win by two goals or more) was always going to be a tall order for the Impact, who had to find a way to be threatening without their most inventive player, Ignacio Piatti, as the Argentine is recovering from surgery to his hand. And Toronto, whose defensive barricade was reinforced by the return of Will Johnson and Drew Moor, wasn’t going to be easier to penetrate.

Forced to mix things up tactically, Biello opted for a more direct 4-4-2 formation, which has never been used before under his tenure. Didier Drogba and Michael Salazar spearheaded the attack and offered plenty of endeavour and physicality but didn’t receive enough service and support, especially in the first half where the visitors were virtually unbothered.

Nonetheless, Biello was happy with Salazar’s performance, who, in only his fifth appearance, seemed to be growing in confidence.   

“It was a good game from Salazar,” Biello said of the 23-year-old. "I think he gave everything. It was a good sign to see him play with as much intensity as he did.”

In the absence of Piatti, fellow Argentine winger Lucas Ontivero tried to drive the Impact forward offensively and seemed the most likely candidate to create a threatening chance from midfield. However, he didn’t make things at all easier for the Impact when he was sent off for a headbutt on Johnson, leaving his team down a man for the last 30 minutes (just when they were pushing for the go-ahead goal).

The best scoring opportunity came from none other than Porter himself, who entered off the bench in the second half. For a moment, even if down a man, it felt like the magic of last year was happening again. One banner in the stadium quoted Mohammed Ali: “impossible is just a big word”. But Porter, from a dangerous position inside the Toronto box, couldn’t put enough power on his shot to beat Clint Irwin, and the Impact’s dreams of returning to the Champions League quickly evaporated.