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Toronto FC goalkeeper Joe Bendik (12) saves a ball from Montreal Impact forward Andres Romero (15) during a game at BMO Field. (Nick Turchiaro/USA Today Sports)
Toronto FC goalkeeper Joe Bendik (12) saves a ball from Montreal Impact forward Andres Romero (15) during a game at BMO Field. (Nick Turchiaro/USA Today Sports)

MLS

Impact embrace underdog role ahead of first playoff game Add to ...

For a guy with a reputation for running close to the red line, the posture and attitude on the cusp of a big, even historic, moment is one of serenity.

One might even accuse Montreal Impact head coach Marco Schallibaum, no stranger to touchline bans, suspensions and hefty fines, of deploying a little psychology.

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The second-year MLS entry plays its first postseason game on Thursday, although the Impact’s Swiss head man drew a distinction between the single-game knockout round and the playoffs.

“If we win, for me, then it will be the playoffs,” he said.

The mood among his players, who gathered for a closed-door training session in the chilly outdoor environs of Saputo Stadium was a little more febrile.

Everyone in an Impact team shirt understands Thursday’s game in Houston against a favoured Dynamo squad is weighted with consequence.

“The adrenalin is there … there are no three points, no ties,” midfielder Patrice Bernier said from pitch-side as leading scorer Marco Di Vaio hammered volley after volley into a nearby net.

The Italian striker scored 20 league goals this season, good enough for third in MLS, but like the rest of the squad had a second half to forget (the Impact limped to a 1-6-1 finish).

Still, having played on the UEFA Champion’s League stage for Bologna means Di Vaio is undaunted by the task ahead.

“We just have to be better … we know we’re going through a difficult period, but we have the players to win,” he said, later adding: “I have confidence that we will fight for a result.”

Win, and the Impact will play host to the first leg of a home-and-home with the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.

Lose, and, well – that’s understandably not an eventuality anyone cares to contemplate.

“The season is over, we’ve reached our goal [making the postseason], now, all we can do is think about one game,” Bernier said.

Montreal and Houston have met three times this season, with the Impact dominating both its home games and losing 1-0 in Texas.

Though the Dynamo are the lowest scoring team in the postseason – they have just 41, with 24 of them at home – they also don’t allow very many (just 17 this season on their home pitch).

“There’s not a ton of teams that go there and win,” Impact captain Davy Arnaud said.

When you’re the underdog, you might as well embrace it.

“When we were favourites, in our last game in Toronto [a 1-0 loss], we weren’t up to the task. So, yes, we’ll take the [underdog] role. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to run and hide,” he said. “A lot of this is mental … we can’t change very much, to be honest, we need to go back to basics, simplicity, but as I said, it’s mostly what happens in your head. There’s pressure, but you have to manage it.”

Schallibaum was understandably cagey about the tactical adjustments he plans to make, although it’s safe to assume the typical conservatism of a routine mid-season road game will be tossed by the wayside.

He did reveal that oft-injured defender Nelson Rivas will be on the trip, as will fullback Jeb Brovsky, who sat out the last four games with a broken toe.

Bernier, for his part, said he has recovered from a hip injury that has limited his effectiveness and led to a succession of other niggles.

That’s good news for an occasion that could well require all hands on deck.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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