Who knew that it would take a plucky team from Montreal to get Major League Soccer fans interested in the CONCACAF Champions League? Last Wednesday night, the Montreal Impact fought for their lives in Mexico City in the first leg of the CCL final.
Although the Impact gave up a goal late to Club America, their 1-1 result puts them in a position that few people outside of Quebec thought they would be in: winning the CONCACAF Champions League.
For years the collective reaction among MLS supporters when talking about the CONCACAF Champions League was anger, then indifference. Anger derived from their teams once again coming up short against Mexican or Central American opposition. Anger that their team had to play in sub-par conditions and against referees whose decision-making seemed to be swayed by a hostile crowd. Indifference set in when supporters would not show up to the match.
But the Impact have been a different story. A team that had to literally fight their way for their CCL spot in the Amway Canadian Championship, Montreal have consistently gone against some of the continent’s best and come out on top.
Even after qualifying, their path to the final was far from easy. The club has in successive rounds beaten the New York Red Bulls, Pachuca (2009-2010 CCL Champion,) and Alajuelense (29-time winner of the Costa Rican Primera Division). Each step of the road provided some thrilling late heroics including this late goal by Cameron Porter against Pachuca, a rookie playing in just his second professional match.
The team’s shrewd tactics such as playing all of their exhibition matches in Mexico during the preseason and picking up World Cup center-back Laurent Ciman and former Italian national team defender Marco Donadel have paid.
Beyond the Impact, the subplots of this final are scintillating . It would easy to just pigeonhole this match as another “MLS versus Liga MX” game. But the importance of this match goes beyond the relationship between the top league in Canada/United States and Mexico. There are ramifications for domestic soccer all across North America.
If the Montreal Impact can receive it will be not just a pivotal moment for the team, but for North American soccer as a whole. No Canadian team has ever won the CONCACAF Champions League or, the competition’s predecessor, the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
For a country that has very few things in international soccer to hang their hat on, a win or a draw Wednesday would certainly be a moment worth celebrating.
Matter of fact, no MLS team has ever won the CCL – D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy did win the CONCACAF Champions Cup 1998 and 2000, respectively. To say that MLS has struggled in this tournament, and in particular against Mexican opposition, would be an understatement.
Last Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca was just their third result in Mexico in the league’s history. Liga MX sides have ruled this tournament with an iron fist, winning every single tournament dating back to its modern formation in 2008-2009.
The shared history between the United States and Canada is what seems to make both countries united in their support for the Impact. Although Montreal has played three full seasons in MLS (this will be their fourth in 2015) the club’s history dates back nearly 23 years.
Even going back to the club’s days in the American Professional Soccer League, the club like many Canadian teams has always played in the U.S. Soccer system. That tie to the lower divisions of US Soccer is what seems to unite the two countries for this particular final, not a hash-tag.
Wednesday may prove to a pivotal moment for the Montreal Impact, Canadian soccer, and MLS. Or it may be another line in the ledger of Liga MX victories over their neighbors to the North. But if the Impact can obtain glory it will not just be their supporters in Quebec who will be celebrating victory.