It will be strange for Impact players to see former teammate Michael Azira in Chicago Fire red this weekend – just three days after being traded away from Montreal.
The Impact sent Azira and a 2020 draft pick to the Fire at the MLS summer trade deadline this week for defender Jorge Corrales and the top spot in the allocation order.
Long-time teammates become adversaries as the Impact (10-12-3) face the Fire (6-10-9) on Saturday in a key Eastern Conference matchup amid an intensifying playoff race.
“It will be weird to see him for sure, but also cool to see him in a different jersey and play against him,” said Impact midfielder Shamit Shome. “He’s one of the best guys in the locker room. We’re going to miss him a lot.
“When I was in a bad stage last year where I wasn’t playing, he would always motivate me to keep going, to push myself. He’s someone I owe a lot to and I made sure I told him that.”
The 31-year-old Azira appeared in 29 league games since joining Montreal last season. The Uganda international made 16 starts for the Impact this year, but saw his playing time diminish in recent weeks. He could play a fill-in role with Chicago, especially with Bastian Schweinsteiger moving to central defence.
“Azira’s attitude was exemplary from day one,” said Impact coach Rémi Garde. “In addition to being a good player, he’s a remarkable person. I really enjoyed working with him. He always put the team ahead of himself.”
That move was one of three for the Impact as they enter the final stretch of the season. Desperately needing reinforcements, Montreal also acquired midfielder Bojan Krkic and signed homegrown talent Ballou Tabla on loan from Barcelona. Those players are likely unavailable for Saturday due to a lack of match fitness.
With nine games left this season for both the Impact and Fire, any encounter with Eastern-Conference opponents has a significant effect on the standings. Montreal is sixth in the East with 33 points. Chicago is 10th with 27 points.
The Impact are coming off a 2-1 win against Calgary’s Cavalry FC in the Canadian Championship. Garde’s men have lost five of their past six MLS matches.
The Impact have also dropped a season-high five consecutive games on the road while being outscored 16-8. Their last victory away from Saputo Stadium was three months ago – 2-1 over the New York Red Bulls on May 8.
Chicago is in a similar boat. The Fire’s 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo last Saturday was their first road win of 2019 and snapped a five-match winless run. The Fire have two wins from their last 13 games in MLS (2-6-5). They are winless at home in three straight (0-1-2).
“They’re a team that’s kind of like us,” Shome said. “They get good results and bad results. They’re an inconsistent team. We don’t know what kind of Chicago team we’re going to face but we have to be aware that they can hurt us and they’re dangerous.
“We know we need to go there and get a result.”
Montreal will need to contain Chicago’s three major threats on offence: Nemanja Nikolic, Nicolas Gaitan and C.J. Sapong.
Nikolic, Chicago’s leading scorer the past two seasons, netted the game’s only goal against Houston last week. The striker is two goals away from tying Chris Rolfe (48) for second-most career goals in Fire history.
Gaitan, with a pass on Nikolic’s tally versus the Dynamo, now leads the Fire with nine assists.
Sapong, who will make his 200th career regular season start in MLS on Saturday, leads Chicago with nine goals this year.
“At this point in the season, it’s cliché to say, but every game is a final,” Chicago captain Dax McCarty told the team’s website. “We have to treat it like that. There’s four or five teams that are all really close and we’re on the bottom half of that. We need to win this game in order to give ourselves a good chance to make the playoffs.”
Montreal Impact (10-12-3) at Chicago Fire (6-10-9)
Saturday, SeatGeek Stadium
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The Impact will not return home following Saturday’s match in Chicago. Instead, the team will fly straight to Calgary as they prepare for Wednesday’s Canadian Championship game against Cavalry FC.
SECOND OF TWO: Montreal faces Chicago for the second and final time this season. In the first encounter at Saputo Stadium in April, Omar Browne scored in the 83rd minute to give the Impact a 1-0 victory.
NO GOAL FOR YOU: Fire goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm has recorded back-to-back clean sheets in league play. He has not conceded a goal in 205 minutes.
THE WINDY CITY: The Impact are 1-4-3 all-time in Chicago.