SPORTS

Montreal Impact playing for more than Champions League title

04/21/2015 10:45 EDT | Updated 07/16/2015 07:59 EDT
Expand your mind. We're talking big picture here – very big picture.

On the surface it's just another game of soccer – two if you count both legs. When all is said and done, they'll add up the aggregate scores and one of two things will happen.

The most likely scenario is a familiar tale. A Mexican team – in this case Club America – wins the CONCACAF Champions League. No one will be surprised another Mexican club has collected the silverware, and cue the celebrations in the streets of Mexico City.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, an entirely different story is capturing the imagination. A Canadian team has produced one of the biggest upsets in the history of North American soccer. The Montreal Impact, a second tier team as recently as 2011, has qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup.

If I were a betting man, it would be a no brainer. Putting head before heart, my money would go on the Mexicans. Club America is among the country's most powerful teams in both the domestic and international arena. It has been down this road many times before with five CONCACAF titles to its name.

But this is not about winning a few dollars on the side. This is about winning the hearts and minds of Canadian sports fans still skeptical about soccer's relevance outside of that month, once every four years, when we nail our colours to the mast and consume the World Cup.

It is time Montreal lived up to its name. This is its time to make not just an Impact – but a global impact.

Few outside Canada's borders care about the state of the Canadian game. Why should they? They have their own leagues and nations to follow, and Canada has done virtually nothing over the last century to garner wider respect as a soccer playing country.

The disregard for Canadian soccer at home and abroad will not change unless, or until, this country puts its house in order and challenges the establishment. That moment has arrived and Montreal must seize an opportunity for its own glory and the good of the Canadian game in general.

The size of the task is enormous. It is not impossible – how can it be in a two-horse race? But common sense and a glance at the history books strongly suggest a Montreal victory is highly improbable.

The key to success lies in how the Impact handle the first leg on Wednesday night. I have never spoken to a player who didn't find Mexico City's Azteca Stadium a test of mental and physical endurance. A combination of altitude (over 7,000 feet) and a hostile atmosphere is part of the reason why few visiting teams emerge unscathed.

Keeping Club America at arm's length

Montreal doesn't have to win in Mexico. It doesn't even have to score – but it absolutely must keep Club America within arm's length. To achieve that, and give itself a fighting chance in the decider at the Olympic Stadium, the Impact has to be organized, compact and decisive from a defensive standpoint.

Offensively it will almost certainly be a frustrating night. Goal-scoring chances will be few and far between – but it is equally important players like Jack McInerney, Ignacio Piatti and others use the ball intelligently and ease the pressure as often as possible.

Montreal has scored on the road throughout this run to the final. The players must remember that as they step out at the Azteca and take that confidence into the first leg. The intimidation factor is bound to be there, but the Impact did not reach the Champions League final by accident. The Mexicans would do well to remember that.   

A pro-Canadian crowd approaching 60,000 will be waiting to welcome the Impact next week when they will know what has to be done in the second leg. If Montreal does its job in Mexico it will be more than an event. It will be the most important club game ever staged on Canadian soil.

Winning the CONCACAF Champions League would not make Montreal the best team in North America. It is not even close to being the best team in MLS.

But spreading the gospel of Canadian soccer as a living, breathing, vibrant organism is the Impact's mission. They have earned the platform on which to make a clear, bold statement.

Now is not the time to fluff their lines.

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