The Crew scored the winner in the final moments of second-half stoppage time when forward Emilio Renteria headed in a cross past Impact 'keeper Troy Perkins, ending Montreal’s five-game win streak.
“When we got the lead late, I felt like we had control of things,” Montreal coach Jesse Marsch said. “But then the game opened up and we were tired. In the end, they punished us.”
Impact forward Marco Di Vaio staked Montreal to a late lead when he opened the scoring by calmly chipping a ball over charging Crew 'keeper Andy Gruenebaum in the 73rd minute.
But Crew captain Chad Marshall tied the score when he outmuscled a pair of Montreal defenders to put a head on a Frederico Higuain free kick in the 80th.
Higuain had two assist on the night, including the cross on Renteria's winner.
Perkins, who played an impressive game with six saves, had no chance to stop either Crew goal.
“Troy played very well for us tonight,” Marsch said. “It looked like it was going to be enough for three points, then it looked like it was going to be enough for one point.
“It’s a little cruel for us tonight, but we’re not stopping.”
The Crew (12-8-6) and Impact (12-14-3) entered the game tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference. The top five teams earn a playoff spot.
Columbus, which beat Philadelphia on Wednesday with another winner scored in second-half stoppage time, vaulted past Chicago and D.C. United and into a tie for third place.
Columbus and Chicago have played three fewer than Montreal, which remains two points behind Chicago and D.C. United. United has played two fewer games than the Impact.
Yet Marsch said Montreal is still very much alive in the playoff race.
“We’re not going to let this faze us,” Marsch said. “I feel like we came into a tough place and played well.”
The Impact’s five-game winning streak was the longest by an MLS expansion team since the league did away with the shootout in 2000.
The Crew has won four consecutive games and is 4-0-2 in its past six.
Higuain, an Argentine designated player signed in July, has three goals and six assists in his five-game MLS career. He is the older brother of Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain.
Higuain and fellow striker Jairo Arrieta (five goals, two assists in 10 games) found little time and space to operate for most of the match, but Higuain assisted both Crew goals.
“He disappeared for most of the game,” said Perkins, an Ohio native who grew up in a Columbus suburb. “But we gave away silly fouls, and one hurt us.”
Marshall scored during a 40-yard free kick by Higuain, taken after Crew midfielder Justin Meram was fouled by Lamar Neagle.
Higuain assisted Renteria’s winner with a cross to the penalty spot from near the sideline. Marsch said the goal was scored in part because the Impact was tired at the end of the game.
“That’s the big one,” Marsch said. “We ran out of gas.”
Earlier, second-half sub Sanna Nyassi provided a spark for the Impact after both teams slogged through a scoreless first half on a rain-soaked field.
Nyassi, subbed on in the 59th, zipped into the Crew penalty area and laid off a pass to Felipe Martins at the top of the Crew penalty area.
Martins tapped the ball onto an onrushing Di Vaio, forcing defender Nemanja Vukovic to lunge and lose his footing.
Di Vaio floated the ball over a charging Gruenebaum for his fourth goal in the past six games.