MEXICO CITY – As soon as the final whistle blew in Alajuela, the texts, emails and phone calls began clogging the Montreal Impact’s collective inboxes.
Four years after Major League Soccer united behind Real Salt Lake’s run to the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final, a historic tie they ultimately lost in heartbreaking fashion to Monterrey, the hashtag was back. Only this time instead of #MLS4RSL, it was #MLS4Montreal.
And, like 2011, it wasn’t just friends, family and fans casting long-held allegiances aside to get behind the league’s last man standing.
Here were players and coaches who spend 10 months of the year competing against the Impact, now sending their congratulations and well wishes, a state of affairs Bakary Soumare had never imagined, let alone never experienced, in nine years as a professional.
“Even after the game in Costa Rica, the amount of messages and emails and phone calls I’ve gotten, it’s been unbelievable,” Soumare told reporters on Tuesday at the Impact’s hotel. “I can’t remember a game or an event where I’ve had so many people reaching out to me.
“You’re talking about people in the league, people I went to high school with. The outreach has been fantastic, and as a player, you just enjoy it. … It feels like the entire league is pulling in one direction.”
That direction is, of course, historic, with Montreal in position to become the first MLS team to lift the CCL trophy ahead of Wednesday’s final first leg against Club América (9 pm ET; Fox Sports 2 and UniMas in the US, TVA Sports 2 in Canada).
Like Soumare, Montreal forward Jack McInerney feels the love, though he also picked up on another interesting undercurrent.
“[All of MLS is] rooting for us, whereas if you come here and you talk to a Cruz Azul fan, they want us to win,” McInerney said. “No one wants a Mexican team to win here unless you’re a Club América fan, whereas all the MLS teams want us to win.”
By most accounts, Las Águilas are the most-hated club in Mexico, a feeling that emanates from what many opposing fans perceive as preferential treatment from referees, the club’s transfer dealings and non-stop coverage from Televisa, which owns the club and is the largest mass media company in Latin America.
Asked whether the club felt obligated to the rest of Mexican soccer to dispose of the Impact and maintain regional hegemony, Club América president Ricardo Peláez dismissed the idea out of hand.
If América emerge victorious from both legs, he said, they’ll do so for themselves and their fans, 105,000 of which will pack a sold-out Estadio Azteca.
“The words obligation and failure don’t scare us,” Peláez said. “There is always pressure, and who doesn't know how to manage it and channel it can't be in this organization. Because it's always here.”
Of course, the Impact aren’t immune to that pressure, though they’re the clear underdogs considering Liga MX’s historical dominance in CCL play, especially south of the border.
And while they appreciate the support from their counterparts in the United States and Canada, goalkeeper Evan Bush said they can’t afford to get too wound up in the budding rivalry between the two leagues.
“Once you start thinking about putting the weight of a league on your shoulders, it becomes a little bit more country vs. country and league vs. league,” he said. “At that point, you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.”
Soumare echoed those words – “There’s enough pressure as it is,” he said – but it’s clear the Impact would love nothing more than to make history while flying the MLS banner in the process.
“It just makes you proud of being part of Major League Soccer,” Soumare said. “It’s not so much pressure, but it gives you this feeling of representing Major League Soccer even more so than ever. It’s guys on other teams, they’re behind you, they want you to win, and they know that we’re here representing the league. It’s pretty huge.”