The idle Impact advanced to the Champions League knockout stage late Wednesday night after the New York Red Bulls failed to earn a victory in El Salvador in Group-3 action. The 0-0 draw between the Red Bulls and C.D. FAS in Central America means New York cannot catch Montreal in the standings, thus guaranteeing the Impact top spot in the three-team group.
As a result, Montreal's Olympic Stadium will be awash with blue and white when the Impact play a quarter-final match at home next February, the team's first in six years.
"To qualify without having to play the last group game shows how much effort we put into it, and the types of performances we put in," said Jack McInerney on Thursday. "It's great exposure for the club. Goals were reached last night."
Montreal opened its 2014-15 CCL campaign with back-to-back one-goal victories against FAS — 1-0 at Saputo Stadium and 3-2 in San Salvador's Estadio Cuscatlan in August. Last week, the Impact defeated a largely inexperienced Red Bulls side 1-0 at home to take a six-point lead atop the group.
New York's failure to win on Wednesday helped Montreal partly redeem an embarrassing Major League Soccer season. With the Impact (6-17-6) in last place in the Eastern Conference and eliminated from the MLS playoffs, the team's fans have had little to celebrate this season.
The promise of February soccer in the city is the year's silver lining.
"We're in the best eight teams in North America," said Marco Di Vaio, who scored four goals in three matches so far in the CCL group stage. "It's a big day for the club. In February, there's a big game in the team's history. It's a historic moment for the city and the fans."
Although he was instrumental in getting the club to the quarter-finals, Di Vaio will likely play his final game with the Impact next month, and thus miss February's CCL showdown.
Last week, the 38-year-old strongly suggested he would return to Italy after his contract with the Impact expires in October regardless of Montreal's Champions League aspirations. The team's guaranteed spot in the quarter-final has done little to sway the Italian striker.
"I can't come back just for two games," said Montreal's fourth all-time leading goal scorer. "This doesn't change anything. If I come back, it will be for the full year, not just two months."
The Impact are returning to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2009, when the team was eliminated by Mexico's Santos Laguna 5-4 on aggregate. Montreal was still competing in the lower-tier North American Soccer League at time.
After beating teams from Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago in the group stage that year, the Impact were sitting pretty after their first quarter-final leg, a 2-0 victory played in front of more than 55,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium.
Impact Academy product Maxim Tissot, who was 17 at the time, remembers the game like it was yesterday. He watched from the Big O grandstands as Impact great Eduardo Sebrango scored twice to give Montreal the victory.
"The atmosphere was something else," said Tissot, who was playing for Montreal's farm team, the Trois-Rivieres Attak, at the time. "I remember it well. What a game!"
Two weeks later, Montreal took a one-goal lead into halftime in Torreon, Mexico, before a stunning second-half meltdown sent the Impact tumbling out of the competition.
"I thought for sure we would win," said Tissot, now 22 years old. "For the guys who watched that game, we don't want a repeat of that. We have to move past the quarter-finals this time with that game in mind."
Despite already qualifying for the knockout stage, Montreal still has a lot to play for in its last CCL group stage match against New York at Red Bull Arena on Oct. 22.
The eight teams that qualify for the quarter-finals will be seeded according to the number of points accumulated in the group stage. The top-four seeded teams will have the benefit of playing their return leg at home, a luxury not afforded to the Impact squad that conceded five goals in Mexico in 2009.
"The last game still means a lot," said McInerney, who will likely see his playing time on the rise between now and the end of the season. "You can miss some big teams in the next round if we go to New York and get a result. It's definitely on our mind right now."
With more group-stage matches still to be played, only three other clubs have secured their place in the quarter-finals. D.C. United, Mexico's Pachuca, and Costa Rica's Herediano could face Montreal in late February and early March. And barring final-game collapses, fellow MLS teams Sporting Kansas City and Portland will also clinch a spot in the quarter-final.
With travel time in mind, Impact players are already indicating their preference to face a team in the United States.
"If you have to travel down south, it's going to be tough," said McInerney. "An MLS team would be ideal for us. But whether we go to Mexico or D.C., it's a big opportunity."
Added Tissot: "We'd be more comfortable with what we know. We may not want to face Mexican teams because they're so good. But we'll be ready in any case."
Notes: Montreal will play the first leg of its quarter-final either Feb. 24 or Feb. 25. The return leg will be played either March 3 or March 4. … Montreal is representing Canada in this edition of the Champions League after winning the Canadian Championship in June. The Impact hoisted the Voyageurs Cup after beating rivals Toronto FC 2-1 on aggregate in the final.