HARRISON, N.J. – Evan Bush was looking ahead.
And why not? The prospect of a Montreal-Toronto playoff series was too tantalizing to dismiss.
“It looks like it’s going to be a 401 Derby, Conference Final-style,” said Bush, after Ignacio Patti scored two goals in the second half to lead the Montreal Impact to a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal series Sunday.
With the win, the Impact advanced to the MLS Eastern Conference championship, where they will meet Toronto FC. This marks the first time in franchise history the Impact have reached the Conference championship round.
“I’m not sure if MLS really likes that,” said Bush, who finished with three saves.
“We’re going to be excited, about it, our fans are going to be excited about it and Canada as a whole will be excited about it.”
The first leg of the Eastern Conference final will be held Nov. 22 at the 55,000-seat Olympic Stadium instead of the 20,801-seat Saputo Stadium that the Impact typically call home.
The Impact had won the first leg of the home-and-home series, defeating the Red Bulls 1-0 at Saputo Stadium on Oct. 30. Montreal won the series 3-1 on aggregate.
“The advantage we brought into this game really helped us,” Bush said. “We were able to sit and keep the game in front of us.”
Against the second-highest scoring team in the regular season – NYCFC scored 62 – the Impact employed a version of hockey’s neutral zone trap to force New York to play on the perimeter, instead of the middle of the pitch.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Bush said. “We’re trying to push the game wide.”
While the Red Bulls outshot Montreal 17-7 and were even on shots on target (4-4), few shots could be qualified as dangerous until Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal in the 77th minute.
“I felt good about our tactics,” New York coach Jesse Marsch said.
In an attempt to counteract the Impact’s trap, the Red Bulls tried stretch passes to their skilled attackers. But Montreal’s defenders stayed with the New York forwards.
“We worried about Wright-Phillips getting in behind,” Bush said. “They tried getting him behind a few times.
“When you have an advantage in a series there’s no reason to let a striker get in behind you.”
The Impact were unable to create much of an offensive attack in the first half. Montreal was outshot 6-2 in the opening 45 minutes and trailed significantly in time of possession, 58.2 per cent to 41.8. For the game, the Red Bulls had a 64.5 per cent to 35.5 per cent advantage in time of possession.
New York had the two best scoring chances of the first half. They came midway through the 20th minute as midfielder Kljestan’s penalty-kick attempt was stopped by Bush. The Red Bulls were awarded the kick when midfielder Gonzalo Vernon was taken down in the box by the Impact goaltender.
“Typically he goes to the goalkeeper’s left side 75 per cent of the time,” Bush said of the penalty kick save. “I took a chance, took a gamble and went to the other side. And it paid off.”
Prior to halftime, Bush swallowed a relatively harmless drive off the foot of midfielder Sal Zizzo.
Piatti broke the 0-0 deadlock by elevating a shot over Luis Robles. Piatti, who finished third in the MLS with 17 goals in the regular season, scored his first of the playoffs.
“At (a) crucial moment because usually the 60th minute is a benchmark where you start getting fatigued, tired, maybe you lose concentration,” Patrice Bernier said. “That goal came at a good time to give us an extra boost to finish off this game.”
Robles made one save.
The Red Bulls avoided the surge following Piatti’s goal and the pressuring attack paid dividends when Wright-Phillips tied the match. But Piatti’s second goal eight minutes later decided the game.
New York outshot the Impact, 11-5 in the second half.
“It was a difficult period,” Bernier said. “They were coming.”