Virtually eliminated from MLS playoff contention, the last-place Impact would like to throw a wrench in San Jose’s own dwindling playoff aspirations when the Earthquakes visit Saputo Stadium on Saturday.
Montreal is 16 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with six league games remaining, while the Quakes are nine points from the fifth and final berth in the West.
"A team like San Jose is coming in, and they’re fighting to make the playoffs," assistant coach Mauro Biello said at training this week. "We’re obviously going to rotate a couple of guys. We’re expecting a physical game. It’s about finishing the season strong. Right now, we’re in the role of the spoiler."
Albeit faring well in the CONCACAF Champions League — Montreal beat the New York Red Bulls 1-0 on Wednesday to go six points clear atop their group — the Impact are mired in a season-long slump in MLS. Montreal (5-17-6) has managed only five wins in 28 matches while conceding a league-high 52 goals, an average of nearly two per game.
A loss against San Jose, a team that hasn’t won in its last eight contests, would officially eliminate the Impact from post-season contention. The Impact will try to impact the playoff picture in the coming weeks as well as they close out the season against the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, and arch-rival Toronto FC — three teams in the hunt for that final playoff berth in the East.
Spoiling the party for the Quakes and its Eastern Conference rivals, however, is not the only item on the team's agenda. Striker Marco Di Vaio believes Montreal's final six games of the year will be formative for next season.
"Each game can help for the future," said Di Vaio, who strongly suggested this week that he would retire at the end of the season. "We can test a few young players. We may be last, but we have to remain proud to play for the Impact.”
In Montreal’s last MLS match, a 2-1 loss on the road to the New England Revolution, manager Frank Klopas gave substantial playing time to a few lesser-known players. Forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel and midfielder Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare made their first starts of the season for Montreal, while midfielder Louis Beland-Goyette played 15 minutes as a substitute in his Impact debut. All three are Montreal Academy products hoping to get real playing time with the squad next season.
With a few lingering injuries in Montreal’s midfield — Patrice Bernier, Gorka Larrea, Justin Mapp and Ignacio Piatti are not fully match fit — and players needing to be healthy and rested for the team’s Champions League fixture against the Red Bulls next month, it is likely Klopas will keep calling on his youngsters during the homestretch of the season.
In addition, with Di Vaio almost assuredly leaving the city he’s called home since May 2012, Klopas may consider giving more playing time to striker Jack McInerney, who has been the odd man out for the Impact for much of the season.
After practice on Thursday, Di Vaio said he was likely "going to go back to Italy" when his current contract with the Impact expires in October.
The 38-year-old, who spent most of his career with teams like Parma and Bologna in Italy’s Serie A, said he needed to leave Montreal to rejoin his family in his home country. The former Italian international scored 31 goals in 70 MLS appearances for the Impact, and added another four Champions League goals so far this year.
The Italian could get most of the night off against the Quakes on Saturday after playing 82 minutes in the team’s midweek victory over New York.
San Jose (6-11-10) is coming into Saputo Stadium looking for its first victory since Aug. 2. The team has since gone 0-3-5 and is stuck in eighth place in the West.
Not to be blamed for the team’s poor form is Chris Wondolowski, who has been unstoppable since returning from this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. The American has eight goals in his last 12 games, jumping into a tie for sixth in MLS scoring with 13 on the year. Wondolowski scored the game-tying goal last week in a 1-1 draw versus Los Angeles.
The Earthquakes will also benefit from the return of forward Steven Lenhart, who missed two months with a knee injury. Lenhart was back in San Jose’s lineup against the Galaxy, coming on as a substitute in the second half.
Making it difficult on Montreal’s goals scorers will be San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch, who leads all goalies in the league with 110 saves this year. With seven games remaining, Busch is 28 saves away from beating San Jose’s club record of 137 in a season, which was set in 2000.
On Thursday, the Impact welcomed Ghanaian midfielder James Bissue to the club. The 23-year-old midfielder began his professional soccer career in Israel and played five games with Ghana’s under-20 squad. Montreal signed Bissue before Monday’s roster freeze deadline.
"We’re hoping he brings us some depth," Biello said of the newly acquired midfielder. "We’ve been watching him for a while. Because he’s coming from Ghana, it took a while for him to get his visa."