Montreal recorded a narrow 1-0 win against a largely inexperienced New York Red Bulls side on Wednesday at Saputo Stadium to increase its lead atop its group to six points. The team's final group stage game goes Oct. 22 in New York.
Should Montreal lose that game, especially by a large margin, the Impact could come crashing out of the competition despite its three wins.
After taking an early lead against a Red Bulls team composed mainly of New York's reserve players on Wednesday, the Impact couldn't find another goal, even after its opponents were reduced to 10 men with 14 minutes remaining in the game.
"We would have liked to take advantage of that red card, and of the fact that we were playing at home," said midfielder Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare, who impressed in just his second start with the club. "We were too comfortable with that 1-0 lead. We should have forced it a little more, tried to get that second goal. We got close."
In a tournament where goal differential can play a crucial role — the Impact were eliminated from last year's Champions League because the team had scored two fewer goals — three one-goal victories so far this year could be the team's undoing. Montreal won 1-0 and then 3-2 against El Salvador's C.D. FAS to start their current Champions League campaign.
"In such an important game, it would have been nice to get a couple more goals to make the second leg easier," said Callum Mallace, who played alongside Gagnon-Lapare in a defensive midfield role. "That was the plan of what we wanted to do. But we got the one, so it's a victory for now."
If the Red Bulls win their remaining two Champions League group games, on the road against FAS next week and at home versus Montreal in October, New York would likely earn a berth to the quarter-finals.
"We have to take care of stuff in El Salvador, and then Montreal comes to us," said New York manager Mike Petke. "I feel like we're in the driver's seat. We have to take care of it in the next few weeks."
Impact head coach Frank Klopas couldn't disagree more.
"We have three games, and three wins," said Klopas. "The driver's seat? It depends where you look from. I'm in a pretty good position so I look pretty good right now. It's in our hands. We have to go there and win the game, and I have confidence that we can do that."
Montreal (3-0-0) will have to snatch a victory from the Red Bulls next month without their star striker Marco Di Vaio, who was shown a yellow card in the 74th minute and will miss the Impact's final group stage match as a result.
Di Vaio fired the Impact to victory with an early 16th minute strike on Wednesday, his team-leading fourth goal of the tournament. Klopas' men are now 7-0-2 at home in the team's third Champions League appearance.
With the Red Bulls (1-1-0) in a tight playoff race in Major League Soccer — New York is in fourth place with 38 points, one more than sixth-place Philadelphia — Petke fielded a substantially weaker side in the Champions League.
Notable absentees were forwards Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips, and attacking midfielder Tim Cahill — New York's star players didn't even make the trip to Montreal.
Instead, the Red Bulls' starting-11 against the Impact had a combined 31 starts this season in MLS, and five of the team's starters had yet to even make an appearance in the league this year. Wednesday's captain, centre back Armando Lozano, is the only starting player who began on the pitch in New York's weekend draw versus the Union.
"I'm extremely proud of my team tonight," said Petke, who suggested he would field a similar team in the club's two remaining CCL games. "We came up here and we made a decision based on the number of games we've had recently and that a lot of our starters were heavy and hurting. My hat is off to my team."
The Impact took advantage of the mismatch early on.
After a cheap Red Bull giveaway in midfield in the 16th, Ignacio Piatti found a streaking Di Vaio at the edge of the 18-yard box. The Italian chested the ball down and poked it home past New York backup 'keeper Ryan Meara.
With the goal, Di Vaio tied former Impact Roberto Brown for most goals in the Champions League by an Impact. Brown, who played for Montreal from 2007 to 2010, scored four in Montreal's inaugural 2008-09 CCL campaign, when the Impact were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Mexico's Santos Laguna.
New York responded with a few good chances in the first half, but goalie Evan Bush was up to the task on both occasions. In the 33rd, Richard Eckersley's header made a beeline for the top corner, but Bush tipped the ball out of play. The Impact 'keeper, who's all but pushed Troy Perkins out of the starting job between the posts, made a diving save in the 39th to deny Eric Stevenson's shot from distance.
The Red Bulls were reduced to 10 men in the 76th minute when defender Connor Lade was shown a second yellow card in the span of six minutes for a dangerous tackle on Gagnon-Lapare.
Montreal is trying to return to the tournament's knockout stage for the first time since 2009.
Elsewhere in the Champions League on Wednesday, Mexico's Club America thumped Puerto Rico's Bayamon FC 10-1.
Notes: The Impact have yet to lose in club competition at Saputo Stadium this year. … Montreal is representing Canada in the Champions League after defeating Toronto FC in the final of the Amway Canadian Championship in June. … New York has never won at Saputo Stadium (0-3-1). … Also in Group 3, FAS has already been eliminated from the CCL after three consecutive losses to start their campaign.