For all their recent troubles on the field, the playoffs represent a fresh start for the Montreal Impact.
The team that limped into the Major League Soccer post-season by going 1-6-1 down the home stretch faces the Dynamo in Houston on Thursday night in a one-game knockout match.
The winner advances to the Eastern Conference semifinals against the first-place New York Red Bulls.
“There’s no time to think about our mistakes,” defender Matteo Ferrari said. “The good thing is that we’re 0-0 now.
“We’re starting over and you have to know that now is the time to make the difference. We have enough experience for that. Maybe we didn’t merit to be where we are but now, but we are there and we’re going to play.”
After barely making the fifth and final playoff spot, the Impact (14-13-7) need to find solutions in a hurry for the swoon that saw a 9-3-2 start to the regular season spoiled by going 5-10-5 the rest of the way.
But there is no better example of what a fifth-place team can do than Houston, which won a knockout game last season and then upset Kansas City and D.C. United to reach the MLS Cup final. The Dynamo lost to the L.A. Galaxy, who had also won a knockout match after finishing fourth in the west.
Goalkeeper and MLS veteran Troy Perkins said there is no shortage of examples of fifth-place teams that went far in the post-season.
“Look at Salt Lake in 2008, they made the finals and they barely got into the playoffs. So there’s no reason we can’t, if we believe and have the heart and passion to do it,” he said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t make it to the final.”
It’s as good a matchup as Montreal could hope for.
The teams met three times this season, with the Impact beating the orange-clad Dynamo 2-0 and 5-0 at home, but losing 1-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium in the midst of the late-season fade on Oct. 4.
Montreal will be missing Ferrari’s central defence partner Alessandro Nesta, who has a sore calf, but left back Jeb Brovsky is expected back from a broken toe and midfield leader Patrice Bernier is ready to return from a hip problem.
Bernier and mid-season signing Hernan Bernardello anchoring the midfield should bolster the defence and help launch the attack, which has looked disorganized of late. It could also open up some options on an attack that sometimes looks too predictable in its focus on getting the ball to 20-goal scorer Marco Di Vaio.
The Dynamo are led by gifted midfielder Brad Davis and forwards Will Bruin and Giles Barnes.
Houston has a huge edge in MLS playoff experience. The Dynamo have made the playoffs in seven of their eight seasons in MLS.
But the Impact won’t go in completely cold.
Captain Davy Arnaud has played 15 playoff games, while midfielder Justin Mapp has played 14 and Perkins five. Bench players Sanna Nyassi and Collen Warner also have post-season experience with previous clubs.
“It’s certainly something I’m excited about,” said Perkins, a former Colorado Rapid. “It’s three years I’ve been waiting to get back in this situation.
“They have a lot of guys who have been here before. They were here last year and the year before. That’s a lot of maturity and experience, but at the end of the day, it comes down to who wants it more.”
It would also help to rediscover the sound defensive play and creativity on attack that worked so well early in the season.
And they’ll need to find to cohesion that was sorely missing in their final regular season game last Saturday, where they had a chance to secure third place in the conference but lost 1-0 in Toronto in perhaps their worst performance of the season.
“We worked well the whole season and unfortunately the end of the season was tough,” said Bernier. “But we made it and that was the objective.
“The way we look at it, we opened a big door and let a few people in. Then we took the last spot and shut the door behind us. Now, it’s another season and we have a chance to write another piece of history.”
If Montreal wins, the first leg of the two-game conference semifinal against New York will be Sunday afternoon at Saputo Stadium, with the Red Bulls playing host to second leg next Wednesday or Thursday.