Laurent Ciman reacts after a play in the Montreal Impact-Houston Dynamo game
USA Today Sports

Champions League: Montreal Impact focus on defense as Club América loom: "We can't be afraid"

MONTREAL – How do you prepare to face the most prolific attack in the CONCACAF Champions League?

Club América, the Montreal Impact’s opponents in the CCL final, walked all over Costa Rica’s Herediano in the second leg of the semifinals. They won 6-0 at Estadio Azteca (6-3 on aggregate), bringing their goals-per-game ratio for the tournament to a whopping 3.75 (30 goals in eight games).

América probably noticed that last week was tough on Montreal’s defense. The Impact shipped seven goals in two games against Alajuelense, in CCL, and the Houston Dynamo, in MLS.

Those are scary stats. But when you get on the field, fear often translates into mistakes, so Montreal want to keep cool heads, first and foremost, when the first leg of the final kicks off on Wednesday, April 22.

“We have our tactics, and we have to follow them from beginning to end, not start doing just anything, and keep well-organized,” Impact center back Laurent Ciman told reporters earlier this week. “It’ll be very important against América. We can’t get there and be afraid of anyone. We didn’t get there by chance. We have to be confident in ourselves, and we’ll see for the rest. In a football game, anything can happen.”

Last week, goalkeeper Evan Bush saw everything happen right in front of him. He felt the script of the Alajuelense game was inevitable; that La Liga were always going to force breakdowns by throwing eight or nine players forward at all times while trying to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg.

“We held pretty strong for the most part in that game, even though we gave up four goals,” Bush said. “But the third goal was offside, to me. The fourth goal was late in injury time. You can look at it, and yeah, the scoreboard, it wasn't good to give up four. But there were certainly times when we did well.”

In Houston, Bush noted a similar trend. Giles Barnes scored on a set play, as Pablo Gabas did twice in Alajuela. Bush also thought Barnes was interfering with play from an offside position on Ricardo Clark’s goal.

The deflection that Clark’s chip took off of Eric Alexander, covering for the overly adventurous Victor Cabrera, comforted Bush in his opinion that those goals weren’t “things that are going to happen every game.”

“It’s not a tactical breakdown,” Bush said. “So I’m not really that concerned, to be honest. I still feel comfortable with our group, not only the back four, but everyone in front of them. I think we're going to be fine, moving forward.”

Three set-piece goals conceded in a week are a big problem. While there wasn’t much to do against Gabas’ direct free kick, his second goal, when he peeled away from Calum Mallace on a corner kick, was avoidable, as was Barnes getting in front of Cabrera for Houston’s opener.

For Ciman, the issue is the team’s concentration when defending set pieces.

“We know, before the games, that the teams are strong on set plays,” Ciman said. “I think we have to be ready in every moment of the game. We weren’t in Houston. We weren’t either in the return leg in CONCACAF. Those are goals we have to avoid. Then, from the moment when everyone is 100-percent focused on their part, on themselves, it’ll get better.”

In the semis, Club América scored ‘only’ one goal on a set play, but their front line pulled Herediano’s defense apart at will, with Dario Benedetto (pictured at right) constantly evading markers.

He found enough space to score four goals in the first 32 minutes, the set piece among them. Clearly, compactness will be key for Montreal.

“We have to start the game in the best of ways, and everyone has to get ready, get in their zone,” Ciman said. “With that in mind, we’ve seen that we can keep it at zero at the back. We must not be afraid of that team. Of course, they’re the favorites. They’re playing at home. We have to feel free when we get there and play football the way we know how.”