“Mesmerizing … ingenious … breathtaking … a peerless attacking talent … an extraordinarily gifted showman.”
Thierry Henry was grace personified as a player, a devastating striker both artful and effective who had the world at his feet in his prime. Flowery praise like the above extracts from this These Football Times profile was simply par for the course back in those days, and for most of his incredible career.
Wednesday night’s performance from his Montreal Impact was absolutely nothing of the sort.
Well, OK, not quite: It’s likely that many Impact supporters were left short of breath for long periods of their team’s 0-0 slog vs. Saprissa, and probably short on fingernails by the final whistle at Stade Olympique.
Because the Impact, in an amusingly ironic contrast to their new head coach’s illustrious past, survived and advanced in Concacaf Champions League by parking the bus (I believe garer le bus would be the local terminology), plain and simple. And not just in tough moments, or for the final 15 minutes.
Clutching closely the two away goals they earned in last week’s 2-2 leg 1 draw in Costa Rica, his roster already pockmarked by injuries and probably still incomplete on the whole, Henry yanked the emergency brake into place and dared the Tico travelers to break the deadlock from the opening kickoff.
“We respect the opponent. They played well defensively,” said Morados manager Walter Centeno postgame. “We expected them to be more enterprising.”
Montreal trotted out a 3-4-2-1 formation that devolved into a 5-4-1 for long periods, readily conceding possession – lots of possession – and doggedly clustering into two banks of massed ranks, looking altogether comfortable packing 10 black-clad bodies into their own penalty box as Saprissa rained down crosses, 26 of them in all.
And it worked. IMFC gave up just two shots on target, and goalkeeper Clement Diop came up big on both, and the waves of Saprissa pressure washed but did not break their bunker.
As much as the Impact would prefer to have some fun, free-flowing soccer to offer their fans when the warm summer sun shines down on Stade Saputo later in the season, winter still reigns in Quebec and CCL remains an unforgiving battleground. So with their forces shorthanded and Henry’s system still taking root, they manned the wall, and got the job done.
“We have to fight with the weapons we have. This team forces us to play a certain way. We have to respect that,” said Henry, a tip of the cap to Saprissa that will have to do as consolation for their long trip home.
The Impact will be pronounced underdogs against their likely quarterfinal opponents, defending MLS Cup champs Seattle Sounders. But given what they’ve learned about themselves over the past week or so, they’ll step up to that challenge with clear hearts and big dreams. And that’s about all you can ask for in CCL.