CONCACAF Champions League 2014-15: Semifinal 2 Preview – Montreal Impact vs Alajuelense
OTF’s Austin Fido previews the second semifinal match of CCL 2014-15…
The second semifinal pairing of CCL 2014-15 is a playoff for home advantage in the final. The logic of CONCACAF’s seeding for the knockout rounds is a little skewed. Alajuelense is the bottom seed of the eight teams that qualified for the quarterfinals, but Los Manudos beat top-seeded DC United to get this far, so they have assumed the advantages that had accrued to the team with the best record in the group stage…despite having the worst record of the qualified clubs.
It’s the logic of a tennis tournament: beat the top seed, take the top seed’s place in the draw. A home-and-away series of soccer matches is a little different from a tennis tournament, but all the teams in the competition knew the rules before they started out. So fourth-seeded Montreal concedes home advantage to eighth-seeded Alajuelense in this semifinal, and no one seems to be complaining about it – perhaps because both teams are technically ranked below those competing in the other semifinal, so either L’Impact or La Liga will benefit from CONCACAF’s quirky tournament regulations in the final by claiming home advantage for the second leg over a higher-seeded opponent.
Here’s the preview…
Montreal Impact vs Alajuelense
First leg: March 18 @ Montreal; 7:00 pm Chicago time.
Second leg: April 7 @ Alajuelense; 9:00 pm Chicago time.
For just the third time in the last 10 tournaments, the regional club final will not be contested by two Mexican teams: this match-up guarantees a non-Liga MX team in the final (and Herediano is doing its best to eliminate Liga MX’s representation from the tournament altogether).
Alajuelense is looking to return to the CONCACAF club championship final for the first time since 2004 (when it won the title). Montreal is the second Canadian club to have reached the semifinals in the last four tournaments (Toronto made the last four in 2011-12), which isn’t bad going for a country that only sends one representative to CCL, but L’Impact is hoping to be the first Canadian team to make the regional final…ever.
How they got here
A last-minute goal from unheralded rookie Cameron Porter, the 45th overall pick of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, put L’Impact through to the semifinals at the expense of four-time regional champion Pachuca.
Luck? Sure, in the sense that a punt over the top of the defense doesn’t always fall quite so kindly for a center forward matched up against a spindly right winger because the full back has got stranded up the field.
But one ought also to concede that a team makes its own luck. Montreal knew it was now-or-never time, knew it needed a goal having fallen behind to an 80th minute penalty, and had thrown Porter on to the field in the 85th minute to get an extra body up front and hope a chance would fall someone’s way. Callum Mallace’s long pass was not an accident, Porter’s ability to control the ball with his chest while simultaneously shrugging off Jürgen Damm should not be deemed a fluke.
And the finish – a half-volley through the legs of ‘keeper Óscar Pérez – was absolutely deliberate and revealed a confidence one does not expect from a rookie, ignored by US national youth teams, making his second appearance at the professional level.
L’Impact has impressed throughout this tournament by doing things right. In the group stage, largely because its MLS season was a catastrophe, Montreal put out strong lineups. Its groupmate, the New York Red Bulls, tried to slide by with reserves, and was justly bounced from the tournament early.
In preseason, L’Impact again impressed by doing what many MLS clubs have historically been reluctant to try: focusing preparation on CCL. Montreal knew its first competitive game of the year would be against a Mexican opponent, so Montreal spent the latter part of its preseason in Mexico, acclimatizing and playing Mexican teams.
No one, except perhaps head coach Frank Klopas and his players, expected Montreal to beat a talented squad of Liga MX players in something close to mid-season form in the quarterfinals. But L’Impact decided to pick the road less traveled by MLS clubs in CCL – actually giving a damn about the tournament. Win or lose in this semifinal, the decision has been emphatically vindicated.
What they’ve done recently
Montreal has played one MLS game since edging past Pachuca in CCL. It did not go well: the team lost, 1-0, on the road to fellow CCL quarterfinalist, DC United.
The match happened just four days after L’Impact’s heroic performance in the regional tournament, and DC was on similarly short rest, so plenty of reason to discount the result. The more troubling consequence of the game was a serious injury to winger Justin Mapp, who dislocated an elbow and will be out of action for several months.
Mapp would have missed the first leg of this semifinal through suspension for anyway, but his long-term absence is undoubtedly a blow. Head coach Frank Klopas is also suspended for the first leg of this series.
One to watch: Laurent Ciman
Until things got desperate, Montreal played both legs of the quarterfinal against Pachuca in much the same way: 4-2-3-1, hold tight at the back and try to hit on the counter. The club has indicated it will adjust its game plan since it has diagnosed Alajuelense as having a different style to Los Tuzos, and the priority for the first leg will likely be to find some goals and take a league to Costa Rica for the next match.
But defense will be important. Ciman has quickly established himself as a leader at the back for Montreal – his experience as much as his ability was the reason he was signed. He has also been somewhat to blame for the difficulties L’Impact experienced in the quarterfinals: a mis-timed interception abetted Pachuca’s equalizer, and he gave Germàn Cano just enough incentive to hit the deck in the box and win the penalty that almost knocked Montreal out of the tournament.
Every player makes a mistake from time to time, and one as important to his team as Ciman is to Montreal will get more opportunity than most to turn a game. Expect him to be a major contributor to whatever the future holds for L’Impact in CCL.
How they got here
Five goals scored at home against DC United all but sealed Alajuelense’s place in these semifinals. Los Manudos took a 5-2 lead into the quarterfinal second leg and faced the relatively simple task of not losing by three goals.
Jairo Arrieta threatened a DC fightback with a goal in the 36th minute, but Johan Venegas equalized in the 71st. Game over: DC was not going to score three times in 20 minutes. Fabian Espindola scored a penalty at the death as Alajuelense graciously permitted a vanquished opponent the small consolation of winning in front of its home crowd.
This is Los Manudos‘ second successive semifinal appearance in CCL, and the second successive tournament in which they clambered out of the group stage by besting a top-tier opponent. In the 2013-14 edition, they ousted América on their way to the knockout round; this year, defending CCL champion Cruz Azul was toppled by the Costa Rican giant-killers.
With that recent pedigree, Alajuelense should be regarded as a regional giant itself. Certainly, it will hope to make that point by bettering last year’s achievement and making the final.
What they’ve done recently
Fourth in Costa Rica’s Primera División heading into the first leg, Alajuelense’s recent form has not been inspiring. In the league, the team is on a run of six straight games without a win – its last victory in any competition was the 5-2 CCL trouncing of DC United. It got its first clean sheet in nine games in the league match preceding the trip to Montreal, and that was with a mostly reserve lineup as legs were kept fresh for the Champions League.
Los Manudos also carry the burden of two long-term suspensions – first-choice ‘keeper Patrick Pemberton and regular starter Kevin Sancho are serving six-match bans for their part in the brawl with Cruz Azul that concluded Alajuelense’s group stage. The club’s current top scorer, Armando Alonso, will miss out on the first leg after picking up a suspension for yellow card accumulation in the quarterfinals. And midfielders Diego Calvo and Pablo Gabas have just returned from injury.
One to watch: Johan Venegas
Venegas has scored seven goals in his last six appearances. He’ll get close attention from Montreal, and deserves the same from anyone watching these games.
Follow @OTFSoccer for updates on our CCL coverage
CONCACAF editor Austin Fido chats CCL @canetop.