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Monday Postgame: The complicated life and times of the Montreal Impact

Admit it, you were hoping for a little bit of clarity this week.

While the wide-open chase for the postseason is exciting, maybe a couple of the bubble teams could’ve lost, just to click the playoff picture slightly more into focus, right?

Well, there was no such luck, as Columbus and San Jose broke out the defibrillator paddles and – clear! – kept their seasons alive with improbable wins against teams ahead of them in the standings.

Vancouver also stayed in the hunt in the West with a surprising road win, while Portland stayed above the red line, edging Colorado 1-0 courtesy of a classy lob from Diego Valeri.

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In the East, New England, Houston, and Sporting Kansas City all kept pace, and New York went top of the Supporters’ Shield standings with a 1-0 squeaker over FC Dallas, who, despite the loss, are still only five points out of a Western Conference playoff spot with five games to go.

Remember how last week there were just five points separating teams 4-8 in the East, and only six separating that same group in the West?

This week, that margin is down to five points in each conference.

Even the marquee match of the week, Seattle at LA, didn’t resolve that much, exciting as it was. The game unfolded without two of its most important players, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan – both of whom should have a lot to say about their teams’ postseason fortunes – and it ended in a 1-1 tie.

There are only three teams – New York, Seattle and Portland – assured of finishing above .500, creating a sense that many of the current playoff places could be rearranged before the dust settles on the regular season.

With that in mind, let’s look at the recently up-and-down Montreal Impact, a team seemingly capable of a deep run into the postseason, or a tumble out of playoff position altogether.

Which will it be?

Setting the Pace

In just their second year of existence, Montreal jumped out to the fastest start in the league, going 8-2-2 in their first 12 games, and leading the Supporters’ Shield standings all spring.

They established an identity as a solid, counterattacking side with a deadly finisher in Marco Di Vaio, the league’s leading scorer, and a quality midfield led by a resurgent Justin Mapp, Felipe and Patrice Bernier.

They did show some defensive flaws, though, and a five-game winless streak knocked them off track during the summer. To address those problems on D, the Impact acquired Spanish defender Adrián López and Argentine holding midfielder Hernán Bernardello.

And as Bernardello, a Designated Player, settled into their midfield, Montreal rebounded. They walloped Houston 5-0 in late August, and returned to the top of the table.

Crunch Time

But Bernardello and López both went down with injuries in early September, and the Impact have now dropped two home games in a row, falling to third in the East.

They still have two games in hand on leaders New York, and they are still a team that has lost back-to-back games only twice all season. And consider this current slide: Last week, they narrowly lost to a desperate Columbus Crew – a team that always gives them problems – and this week they fell to Vancouver, 3-0, in the most misleading scoreline of the round.

After a slow start, Montreal outshot and out-possessed Vancouver, and the score was 1-0 until the 89th minute, when substitute Camilo went marauding while Montreal were pushing numbers forward for an equalizer. The Brazilian bagged two late goals to pump up the scoreline.

The Impact also had a penalty decision in their favor controversially overturned in the 38th minute. Whether or not you think it was a handball (head coach Marco Schällibaum, right, certainly did), the reversal of the decision was odd. Referee Jorge Gonzalez had clearly pointed to the spot.

But the last time Montreal dropped two in a row, they bounced back with a four-game unbeaten streak. Can they do it again, or are the Impact in danger of falling below the red line?

Rugged Run-in

One thing is for sure, the stretch run will definitely test Montreal’s playoff mettle: Five of their remaining six MLS games are against postseason contenders – and three of those are on the road.

Next week, they travel to Toyota Park to take on Chicago, who are one point shy of the playoff places and clawing for their postseason lives. If they lose that one, the Impact could find themselves in fourth place heading into the following week’s trip to BBVA Compass Stadium, where they’ll take on Houston – who ran riot over Chivas USA this past weekend with Brad Davis, Ricardo Clark, and Boniek García running the show in midfield.

It won’t get easier following that one, as Montreal welcome current fifth-place team New England to Stade Saputo before flying to Los Angeles to take on the defending champion Galaxy.

Montreal kick all of this off with a CONCACAF Champions League game Tuesday night, and they finish the season against their regional rivals – and extremely willing potential spoilers – Toronto FC.

We get tired just looking at that remaining slate – imagine how the Impact’s surplus of 30-somethings must feel.

On the other hand, they’ve shown themselves to be a resilient side this season, and if they can get Bernardello back in the fold in October, he could provide the spark they need to make some postseason noise.

But if Montreal fail to make the playoffs, or fizzle in the first round, their season – scintillating first half aside – will have to be considered a bust.