The Montreal Impact are heading into a pivotal Eastern Conference match with one major factor on their side – they won’t have to face Wayne Rooney.
Due to a suspension, the former England international will not be on the Saputo Stadium pitch when the Impact (11-14-4) host D.C. United (10-10-9) on Saturday night in a meeting with significant playoff implications for both teams.
With five games remaining in the regular season, D.C. United are fifth in the standings with 39 points while the Impact are seventh with 37 points. The top seven teams in each conference clinch a postseason berth.
“It would be nice to beat them with him [Rooney] on the field,” said defender Daniel Lovitz before training on Friday. “I know some guys in the past have been a little more concerned with getting his jersey than playing against him.
“For us, I don’t think anyone really cares who they have on the field. They have 11 and we have 11, and it’s about beating them.”
Rooney was given a two-match suspension for elbowing a New York Red Bulls player in the head in a 2-1 defeat last Wednesday. Three days later, without their captain, D.C. lost 3-1 in Philadelphia while managing just four shots on target.
United are 1-2-1 this season without Rooney, who is in his final MLS season before he joins Derby County in the English Championship as a player-coach in January.
The 33-year-old also missed the first meeting between D.C. and Montreal earlier this season with a red-card suspension – a 0-0 draw at Audi Field in April.
“Even though he’s not there, that means there’s going to be one player not usually getting time that will be looking to make their mark and will be hungry,” Lovitz said. “And that’s something to be aware of.”
D.C. United’s misfortunes began before Rooney’s suspension. Ben Olsen’s men have lost a season-high three games in a row and they are 1-5-1 in their last seven. The last time D.C. lost four consecutive matches was in July, 2017.
Like Saturday’s opponents, Montreal started the season strong but a summertime slump has them clinging to a playoff spot down the stretch. The Impact are 2-7-1 in their last 10 games.
A mid-week 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps snapped a four-game winless skid and gave new coach Wilmer Cabrera his first win. Montreal conceded early but came from behind thanks to Maximiliano Urruti (one goal on seven shots) and Evan Bush (six saves, including a penalty).
The win reignited the Impact’s playoff aspirations. Four of their remaining five games this season are at home.
“There is more and more pressure every time, and it’s normal,” said Cabrera, who is 1-1-0 since replacing Rémi Garde last week. “There has to be pressure. That’s why I’m here because I can deal with that pressure. It’s my job. If we win, we’re good. If we lose, I’m the worst.
“It’s the most important game of our season Saturday. We have to be 100-per-cent ready.”
For returning Impact players, the crucial end-of-season clash feels like a carbon copy of last year’s meeting between these two teams.
In a tight playoff race at the end of September, D.C. United dismantled the Impact 5-0 in the American capital. Rooney and Paul Arriola each scored twice in that game to all but eliminate Montreal from playoff contention.
D.C. went on to make the playoffs while Montreal did not.
Lovitz says Saturday’s match is a chance to return the favour.
“I would love to deal them a 5-0 loss,” said the U.S. international left back. “I think we owe them that. They’re very close to us in the standings and hopefully this is a team that we can brush shoulders with briefly in the standings as we pass them, and that’s the last we see of them.”