Home CONCACAF On-loan keeper Smits had to to duck and dodge the projectiles that were tossed at him in Costa Rica

On-loan keeper Smits had to to duck and dodge the projectiles that were tossed at him in Costa Rica

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After Montreal Impact starting keeper Evan Bush had finished his warm-ups, it was John Smits’ turn to go into the goal. And, right off the bat, he knew he had to keep one eye on the shooters, and the other on the lookout for any projectiles that would be launched at him by Alajuelense supporters.

It was only the Montreal Impact’s pre-game warm-up ahead of Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal second leg, and the tension in Costa Rica was already thick. Smits, on loan to the Impact from FC Edmonton for the match, was in for an experience he’d never forget.

“After Evan had finished warming up, it was time for me to go in and face the shooters,” recalled Smits, who was back in Edmonton on Thursday. “And, any time the ball went over the goal, the fans on that side weren’t trying to just toss the ball back; they were trying to hit me. They were throwing it as hard as they could. They were throwing objects at me.”

During the game, Bush got hit in the head with a coin. Later in the match, with the Impact looking to eliminate Alajuelense from the competition, shoes were tossed onto the pitch. The Impact were able to “lose” by just a 4-2 count; combined with a 2-0 home win in the first leg, the MLS side got through on road goals.

For Smits, who won the NASL Golden Glove for having the best goals-against average in the league in 2014, the emergency call-up opened his eyes to a entirely different sort of soccer culture. He didn’t get a chance to play in the game, but soaked in every second of the experience.

“It’s sort of a kiss of death,” he said. “Now, I crave that atmosphere, that passion for the game. To hear all the boos, they want you to fail, and you want to prove them wrong.”

“You can watch the games or you can have people tell you about what it’s like to play there. It’s nothing like experiencing it.”

Now, the Impact go from frying pan into the fire. It will open the CCL final April 22 against Club America at Azteca Stadium.

It only took Club America 18 minutes at Azteca Stadium to wipe out Herediano’s three-goal first-leg lead. By the time the clock hit the half-hour mark of the second leg, the tie was effectively over. America had a 5-0 lead and Herediano was down to 10 men. The final was 6-0, and it was only that close because America showed a quality of mercy in the second half.

Now the Impact will go to Azteca to face Mexico’s most storied club; on a national-team level, Azteca is a special house of horrors for Canadians. But, the truth is, at an elevation of 7,200 feet, under a cloud of smog and some of the most intimidating fans in all of sport, Azteca would be a tough ask for any visiting team, whether it’s club or international football.

FC Edmonton coach Colin Miller has made many visits to Azteca as a member of the Canadian national team. He has a good idea of what the Impact will face.

“At Azteca, the field is immaculate, but it is 300 yards long by 400 yards wide. And you always seem to have 15 or 16 Mexicans playing against you. The speaker system hangs right above the centre of the pitch, and if you play in the day the shadows hang right over the middle. They will use any advantage they have to beat you.

“I know (Montreal coach) Frank Klopas will have his team organized. But, in all the times I’ve been there with the Canadian team, the best we’ve ever come out of there was a 2-0 loss.

“All the experts have different opinions. Some say you need to be there two or three weeks ahead so you can acclimatize to the conditions. Others say you should be there just for a day. We tried all of the plans with Canada. But the smog hangs like a cloud. It’s just a tremendous atmosphere. You can’t see any faces in the crowd because it’s just a sea of flags.”

In Miller’s mind, Montreal needs to take advantage of the few opportunities it will get. Despite the 6-0 scoreline, Herediano had two great chances early in the game — both on set pieces. It didn’t take advantage of either and, once America put its stamp on the game, Herediano’s players looked as if they were chasing shadows.

MLS has rescheduled the Impact’s April 25 game at San Jose, so the team now has the weekend off between the home and road legs.

Meanwhile, to accommodate viewers who might want to watch both the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final and the second leg of the first round of the Amway Canadian Championship between the Eddies and the Ottawa Fury, the April 29 start time in Edmonton has been pushed back. The game at Clarke Stadium will now kick off at 8 p.m. local time, or 10 p.m. in Ottawa.

There are no plans in place for there to be a home team broadcast of the April 29 game in Edmonton; if there is a stream, it will up to Canada Soccer to provide it.

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