MONTREAL - In the midst of a Major League Soccer season to forget, the Montreal Impact are finally playing a game with major implications.
At the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings since the beginning of April, the Impact are sitting atop their CONCACAF Champions League group with six points from two games. On Wednesday, the club will face its toughest test in the competition when they welcome the New York Red Bulls to Saputo Stadium.
"This is the most important game of the season," said Montreal defender Hassoun Camara. "It’s the event of the year, and we have to perform on the field."
After two victories against El Salvador's C.D. FAS — 1-0 at home and 3-2 on the road in San Salvador — Montreal is looking to take a stranglehold on the group with a win over favoured New York.
"It's something that we see is in our grasp," goaltender Evan Bush said at training this week. "We've put a lot into this tournament. We're going to go out there and play like that. We're committed to what the tournament is and what the ramifications are going forward."
Although Montreal could still mathematically make the MLS playoffs — the Impact are 16 points out of the fifth and final playoff spot in the East with six games left — Impact players are realistically looking to the Champions League as a means for redemption. The club has not reached the CCL quarter-finals since its inaugural 2008-09 campaign, when it was eliminated by Mexico's Santos Laguna.
And while a win on Wednesday would not guarantee the Impact a spot in the quarter-finals when the tournament resumes in February, a victory would give Montreal a six-point cushion atop the group with one game remaining — on the road against the Red Bulls.
New York has three points after a 2-0 victory at home against FAS in its first match. After Wednesday's game, the Red Bulls travel to Central America at the end of the month for a showdown with FAS, before completing the group stage at Red Bull Arena against Montreal on Oct. 22.
"The guys will be ready. Why not?," Impact manager Frank Klopas of Wednesday's matchup. "Playing at home and having the opportunity now to take a big advantage in CONCACAF with a win is huge. The guys know what’s at stake. It will be great to have a packed stadium with our fans supporting us."
Because the Red Bulls are still in the thick of a tight playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference — New York is in fourth place with 38 points, one more than sixth-place Philadelphia — manager Mike Petke could field a slightly weaker Red Bulls lineup versus the Impact on Wednesday.
On top of juggling both the league and the continental club competition, Petke may be without star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who's dealing with a hamstring injury. Wright-Phillips, who leads all scoring in MLS with 21 goals, missed New York's last game.
In that match, a 2-2 draw against the Union on Saturday, Petke took star striker Thierry Henry off as a healthy substitute in the 55th minute, suggesting he wanted the former Arsenal player fresh for the game at Saputo Stadium, where the Impact have yet to lose in club competition this year.
"They have a couple of pretty good players," Bush said with a grin. "With Henry, things go through him. If he plays, it's somebody we have to lock down. If Wright-Phillips is healthy enough to play, then he’s another guy they've had good chemistry with."
Bush is confident the Impact can take on even a stacked Red Bulls lineup should Henry, Wright-Phillips and Tim Cahill make the trip north of the border.
"There are some vulnerabilities and weaknesses in their team, which we can expose," said Bush, who pointed to Wednesday's match as one of the most important in his career. "We can play on the same field as them, without a doubt, with just as much quality in certain areas."
The last time these two teams met, at the beginning of August in MLS, New York ran away with the 4-2 victory thanks to Henry and Wright-Phillips scoring a pair of goals each. The Impact were overwhelmed by the duo for much of the encounter.
"We did a few positive things in New York," said Camara. "Thierry Henry hurt us at his home. His two goals were avoidable. We’ll have to keep our intensity high until the end of the match on Wednesday, because they have such a good team."
Montreal will look to its own spirited duo of Marco Di Vaio and Ignacio Piatti, whose chemistry on the pitch is quantifiable. Since Piatti's arrival in Montreal in mid-August, the Italian and Argentine have scored a total of eight goals in all competitions, with three of Di Vaio's coming in the Champions League.
The Impact may have to take on the Red Bulls without centre back Matteo Ferrari, who left last week's game against the L.A. Galaxy with a thigh injury. Both he and captain Patrice Bernier will be game-time decisions.