The Montreal Impact will need to push a disastrous season to the back of their minds if they hope to find Champions League success.
Montreal is looking for a fresh start when the team welcomes El Salvador’s C.D. FAS to Saputo Stadium on Tuesday in the first game of its 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League campaign.
Frank Klopas’ men are dead last in Major League Soccer with a league-worst 3-13-5 record and are in the midst of a franchise-long six-game losing streak. But Impact captain Patrice Bernier said a tournament tie is a challenge of a different nature.
“You don’t switch off right away from the spell that you’re in,” Bernier said after Montreal’s 2-0 loss to rivals Toronto FC in MLS on Saturday. “But you have to evacuate this, because it’s the Champions League, it’s the first game of the tournament.
“You have an opportunity to set it right for the group stage. With a home win and a positive result, it’s good for the tournament and maybe good for the league. It’s an opportunity to have a fresh start. We have to be ready for it.”
As a result of winning the Amway Canadian Championship in June, the Impact join 23 other clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean – including four other MLS teams – in the annual club competition.
Montreal is in Group 3, alongside FAS and the New York Red Bulls. Only the winner of the group will advance to the knockout stage.
“The Champions League is definitely a chance to rectify a little bit of the season,” said goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who may be a substitute on Tuesday, as backup ‘keeper Evan Bush often gets the nod in non-league matches. “It’s a tournament. We’re not sitting at the bottom of the table, as of yet, and trying to climb a really big mountain.”
Perkins believes the tournament setting may be exactly what Montreal needs to register a win for the first time in five weeks.
“I think we put too much pressure on ourselves in this league – like we have to win,” he said. “In the Cup, it’s not such a big punishment if you lose. You don’t sit and hold it over your head for the whole year. Certainly, the pressure is off in the Cup. We can enjoy ourselves. It’s really a fresh start.”
But with only three teams per group, losing a match in the early stages can be calamitous. Montreal plays its first two games against FAS – at home on Tuesday and in El Salvador on Aug. 20 – before playing home-and-away against the high-flying Red Bulls in the fall.
“You have to realize that the season is what it is, and this is four games where, if you give it your all, you start off well,” said Bernier. “We have to look at this as a great opportunity to start fresh for the group.”
Based in Santa Ana, El Salvador, FAS is one of the most popular soccer teams in the small Central American nation. Playing in the Salvadoran Premier League, the team began their 2014 campaign last Saturday with a 3-0 loss. The first half of the Salvadoran Primera, the “apertura,” runs from August to December.
FAS is the most decorated side in El Salvador with 17 national titles. Last year, after finishing in first place after the second half of the season, FAS was eliminated in the “clausura” semifinals.
In 1979, the club won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, what later became the Champions League. It’s the only continental trophy in the team’s 67-year history. Since the tournament changed name and format in 2008, FAS has never made it past the group stage of the Champions League on three occasions.
Montreal, meanwhile, has had a little more success in recent memory. In 2008-09, when still in the North American Soccer League, the Impact reached the Champions League quarter-finals, ultimately losing 5-4 on aggregate to Mexico’s Santos Laguna.
Last season, the Impact finished second in their CONCACAF Champions League group, tied on points with the first-place San Jose Earthquakes. A worse goal differential sent Montreal packing.
On Tuesday, Montreal will need its strikers, particularly Jack McInerney, to rise from their long slumber. McInerney hasn’t scored in his last six games – incidentally, the length of Montreal’s losing streak. The 21-year-old was especially effective in the Canadian Championship this year, scoring three goals in four games.
Above all, the Impact will have to come out energized, something that has been lacking for much of the season. One thing Montreal can count on is a full roster, as previously injured defender Matteo Ferrari, and midfielders Eric Miller and Justin Mapp, are all match ready.
“The good thing is that everybody is healthy – everyone is back,” said Klopas. “So we have the ability now, with some of the moves that we’ve made, to give us some better depth in certain positions. We’re able to rotate certain guys, for sure.”
Notes: Three of C.D. FAS’ players are on El Salvador’s national squad, including 23-year-old striker Jonathan Aguila, a constant threat in front of goal. Montreal resumes MLS action next Saturday when the team travels to PPL Park to take on McInerney’s old squad, the Philadelphia Union.