Impact loses control of playoff fate after season-ending loss in Toronto

Hassoun Camara

Hassoun Camara

The Montreal Impact’s players have a long day of scoreboard-watching ahead of them on Sunday and they have only themselves to blame. The Impact lost its last chance to control ots postseason fate, dropping a 1-0 result to Toronto FC at BMO Field on Saturday in both teams’ regular-season finales.

A win would’ve clinched third place in the Eastern Conference and allowed Montreal to avoid the knockout game between the fourth and fifth-place teams. Now, however, the Impact would happily take that all-or-nothing game since third place will be tough to manage.

“We’re disappointed today because everyone knows it was a big game for us… It’s hard to deal with that. It’s done now, all we have to do is wait tomorrow and see what will happen,” defender Hassoun Camara said.

The urgency of Montreal’s situation wasn’t apparent by how the Impact began the game. The lacklustre attack generated only five shots in the first half, none on goal and none of real danger save for an Andrew Wenger header that went reasonably close to the far post.

TFC, meanwhile, established an early lead on Robert Earnshaw’s team-leading eighth goal of the season. After striker Bright Dike worked the ball in on the right side, Jonathan Osorio took a shot inside the box and Earnshaw got a foot on it for the re-direction.

Goalkeeper Troy Perkins twice stopped Earnshaw on quality chances later in the half, and also made a diving save to deny Osorio in the 34th minute. Were it not for Perkins, the Impact could’ve easily been facing a multi-goal deficit given how TFC dominated the proceedings.

“If you came in today and didn’t know what was happening in the league… you wouldn’t know who was going to the playoffs or not,” Earnshaw said. “That just shows us and shows everybody where we are and how much we’ve improved.”

Things opened up in the second half and the Impact outshot TFC by a 10-6 margin, though this time was Joe Bendik’s turn to make some big saves. The Reds’ keeper made a point-blank stop of Davy Arnaud’s shot in the 53rd minute and then dove to make a game-saving stop on substitute Andres Romero, who was in close and had an angle in the 88th minute.

The second-half performance was no consolation to the Impact.

“In the first half it wasn’t very good. We made a lot of mistakes… the second half was better, not much better but better,” head coach Marco Schallibaum said. “There were some chances to score and maybe get a 1-1 but we were not good enough to win this game today.”

It was just on Sept. 8 when the Impact had collected a 4-2 win over New England and returned to first place in the Eastern Conference. Montreal was thinking a possible Supporters’ Shield at that point, let alone the playoffs. Then, however, the bottom fell out. Saturday’s loss gives the Impact an ugly 1-6-1 mark over its last eight games and leaves it in danger of missing the postseason entirely.

Camara was at a loss to explain how a team that looked so dominant for so much of the season could suddenly collapse over the final eight weeks.

“You can ask the question to each player and we’ll each have a different answer. It’s hard to explain things in soccer,” Camara said. “We are disappointed because we know that we can do much better… We have a very good team and we showed that in the first half of the season. We have to see what’s the real problem.”

The main “problem,” seemingly, is just a lack of goals. The Impact scored just five times over its last eight matches, three of which came from Marco Di Vaio and one each from little-used reserves Karl Ouimette and Maxim Tissot. The attack was clearly too reliant on Di Vaio, who by himself scored 20 of Montreal’s 50 goals on the season.

To this end, an off-day from Di Vaio basically eliminated Montreal’s chances on Saturday. Di Vaio was limited to two shots, none on goal, as the young Toronto back line did a superb job of keeping the Italian striker from adding to his league-leading scoring total.

The Impact were again without Patrice Bernier, who is battling a hip injury and was replaced in the midfield by Felipe in the Starting XI, with Wenger playing up front in just his seventh start of the year. Wandrille Lefevre also got the start in place of the biggest name absent from the Impact lineup, injured (and retiring) defender Alessandro Nesta.

For TFC, the result puts a nice finish on another disappointing campaign. It would’ve been particularly galling for the Reds to see their Canadian derby rivals clinch a playoff spot on their home field — the Impact could yet be in the postseason in its second MLS season, while Toronto has yet to make the playoffs after seven years of existence.

Still, TFC got the last laugh on Saturday and extended their unbeaten record (5-0-3) against the Impact at BMO Field. It will undoubtedly be another winter of heavy roster turnover under new GM Tim Bezbatchenko, but head coach Ryan Nelsen feels as if the current club has turned a corner.

“This team from the first day I came in we were in a black hole, a monster black hole so big that I didn’t think we could get out of it in just a year. I thought it would take at least two to three years,” TFC coach Ryan Nelsen said. “With that it means you have to suck it up. You’ve got to take the criticism… and it may hurt for a bit, but knowing that we have laid the groundwork out for the future. That is all I wanted to do this year. I wanted to produce some young and exciting young players develop them and now we have a nice foundation, we can move forward.”

To wit, the young Canadian midfield combo of Osorio and Kyle Bekker look to be very solid building blocks for the Reds. Osorio was arguably Toronto’s MVP this season and, though it took Bekker 32 games after the season opener to make his next start, he looked good over 180 minutes in TFC’s last two matches. Osorio and Bekker were a big reason why the Reds’ attack looked so good on Saturday and they also did their work defensively to keep the Impact in check.

The loss leaves Montreal with 49 points, tied with Chicago for third place but the Impact is ahead on a tiebreaker. New England and Houston each have 48 points. If both those sides win and the Fire win or tie, the Impact will miss the postseason.

The odds are still in the Impact’s favour but given how everything else has gone for the club over the last two months, falling out of the playoffs would be par for the course. And the worst part for the Impact is that there’s nothing more it can do to extend its season.

“You cannot do anything, you just have to wait,” Camara said. “You can watch [the games], not watch, it doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to see what’s going to happen.”

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About Mark Polishuk

Mark Polishuk is a writer and editor from London, Ontario. He covered Toronto FC's first three seasons for Major League Soccer's official website, also covering such BMO Field events as Canada's World Cup qualifying match with Jamaica in 2008 and the 2008 MLS All-Star Game. Mark is also a stats stringer for MLB.com and is part of the MLBTradeRumors.com writing team.