If contrasting styles make the best fights then the Montreal Impact’s playoff showdown with the New York Red Bulls should be a treat.
The Impact know they will be on the defensive against a New York squad that likes to keep the ball in opposition territory and get it to Major League Soccer scoring leader Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The Red Bulls know that Montreal will sit back, waiting for a chance to spring Ignacio Piatti or Dominic Oduro down the flanks on a counterattack.
It remains to be seen which tactic succeeds when the teams meet Sunday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
The Impact won the opener of the two-game, aggregate goals Eastern Conference semifinal 1-0 at home and will advance to the conference final with either a win or a draw.
The Red Bulls get through if they win by two or more goals. But if New York only wins 1-0 the game will go to overtime and perhaps a shootout.
A 2-1 New York win would tie the series 2-2 and put Montreal through on the away goals rule.
Whatever the result, both Montreal coach Mauro Biello and New York’s Jesse Marsch aren’t likely to stray from the style of play that got them there.
“When we’ve defended well and we’ve had our focus for 90 minutes, that is key based on what we want to achieve as far as being compact and not giving space to certain players and exploiting space when we win back the ball,” Biello said Friday.
Marsch said this week that his team will stick with its high pressure game, looking to keep possession of the ball and try to find cracks in the Montreal defence.
It is what the teams do best, even if it comes with risks to both clubs. Marsch’s fear is giving up a goal, which would mean his side would need at least three to win.
“We know the game will be heavily in our favour and we have to make sure we don’t dig ourselves a bigger hole,” was how he put it.
A wild card is that Impact striker Didier Drogba is expected back after missing four games – three with a sore back and one in a dispute with Biello. The 38-year-old former Chelsea star is likely to start on the bench, but could go in as a late substitute.
The Impact will certainly be the underdog, having lost all seven away games against the
Red Bulls since joining MLS in 2012 by a combined score of 21-7. First-place New York also had the league’s best home record this season at 13-2-2, including a pair of wins over fifth-place Montreal.
But the Impact won for the first time in Toronto in August and then posted their first-ever victory in Washington when they routed DC United 4-2 in the first round of playoffs, so ending away droughts may be a trend.
“We know it’ll be tough playing in New York,” said Oduro. “They have a very good home record and a strong team, but we’re going to do the same as every game – try as much as possible to stay calm, defend and hit them on the counter.”
“The pressure’s going to be on them. I’m sure they’re going to come out really strong, wanting to get the first goal. We have to do what we always do on the road. Stay compact and be smart. We’re a good counter attacking team. We just need that one chance and get a goal, hopefully.”
The Impact have some positives to build on. Their first leg victory ended the Red Bulls’ 20-game unbeaten run dating from July 3, so they’ve broken that bubble. Also, New York needs to overcome a history of post-season underachievement, including a sudden, unexpected drop in scoring punch in a conference final loss to Columbus last year.
And the Impact are playing their best soccer of the season with star centreback Laurent Ciman’s return to top form and the hot right foot of striker Matteo Mancosu, whose expert touch on a half volley after a long feed from fellow Italian Marco Donadel was the difference in the first leg. Mancosu, who joined from Bologna in July, has three goals in two playoff games.
The Montreal defence will need to limit the chances of Wright-Phillips and star playmaker Sasha Kljestan for a second game in a row and, at the other end, hope 17-goal scorer Piatti can break free of tight coverage from right back Chris Duvall.
Both sides have players banged up, but all should be ready.
Montreal midfielder Hernan Bernardello was a question mark after suffering a calf injury in the first leg, but he trained Friday and should be ready.
New York saw midfielder Mike Grella and defender Kemar Lawrence substituted but both are expected to play, although Marsch may opt for Gonzalo Veron in Grella’s spot.