MEXICO CITY – The Montreal Impact are headed into the belly of the beast, and they might be the only ones confident Estadio Azteca won’t swallow them whole.
If the lung-busting altitude, choking smog and MLS’s struggles in competitive matches south of the border weren’t enough, Montreal will also have to deal with a CONCACAF Champions League-record crowd of 105,000 on Wednesday night against Club América in the first leg of the final (9 pm ET; FOX Sports 2 and UniMás in the US, Sportsnet World and TVA Sports 2 in Canada).
If the opinions of taxi drivers, waiters and convenience-store clerks are any indication, it’s a match the locals expect América to dominate after their 6-0 semifinal victory against Herediano reversed a 3-0 first-leg loss and sent them to the final. Even Impact assistant coach Mauro Biello admitted it would be “extraordinary” if the visitors somehow manage to emerge victorious.
“Not too many players can say they’ve played in front of 100,000 people, so that will be quite a different experience for pretty much everyone on the team,” Jack McInerney told reporters on Tuesday.
“Coming to Mexico and CONCACAF, MLS teams have this thing where everyone thinks you’re going to lose to a Mexican team," he added. "It's tough to play here, but we came here and we got a result [against Pachuca]. That gave us a lot of confidence.”
That confidence, however, may be a little misplaced.
Objectively speaking, the 30,000-seat Estadio Hidalgo, where the Impact snagged a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the quarterfinals, pales in comparison to the Azteca, undoubtedly CONCACAF’s most daunting trip and one of the world’s most challenging and historic venues.
To start, the capacities of each stadium are incomparable. While fewer than 20,000 attended the Feb. 24 match in Pachuca, all 105,000 of Estadio Azteca’s seats will be filled on Wednesday, almost 40,000 more than the previous CCL record set just weeks ago for América’s semifinal second leg against Herediano.
The atmospheres promise to be drastically different as well, with those in attendance describing the vibe at Estadio Hidalgo as almost congenial, certainly not intimidating.
That wasn’t the case in Alajuela, where 20,000 rapid fans within spitting distance of the pitch greeted the Impact in their 4-2 defeat in the second leg of their semifinal tie against Alajuelense.
“100,000 people is pretty intimidating, but at the same time, I went to Costa Rica, there was only 20,000, and that was by far the most intimidating environment I’ve ever played in,” McInerney said. “... At the end of the game, I was kind of legit scared for my life.”
Forget the end of the game. Goalkeeper Evan Bush found himself dodging projectiles while trying to keep Alajuelense off the board and took a coin to the head, forcing a stoppage in play. One fan even threw a shoe.
Keep throwing your coins at me!— Evan Bush (@ebushel1) April 8, 2015
Of course, Bush has heard all about the beer, the coins and those infamous bags of urine that, from time to time, come raining down from the stands at Estadio Azteca. He just hopes they fall short of the field of play this time around.
“Costa Rica was a unique situation. It was a very intimate atmosphere, very tight,” he said. “The fans had a lot of opportunities to throw stuff. At Azteca, it’s a little further away, so hopefully the arm strength of the fans isn’t quite as good.”
Their lungs, however, promise to ring Bush and his teammates’ ears throughout 90 minutes that will determine whether the Impact head home to the Stade Olympique, where a sold-out crowd of more than 59,000 awaits, with a chance to lift the CCL trophy on Canadian soil.
While preparing for the rigors of Azteca is practically impossible – 950 policemen and 500 security guards will be on hand Wednesday for crowd-control purposes – there’s no denying that Montreal have done their best to mitigate Azteca’s impact.
They’ve been in Mexico City with a traveling party of 50 since Thursday, acclimating to the conditions at a cost of about $300,000, trained at Azteca on Tuesday and even attended a match at the 1970 and 1986 World Cup venue in early February during a two-week preseason trip to prepare for Pachuca.
That game? A 5-0 win for Club América that Montreal hope is not a precursor of what’s to come as they hope to bring MLS’s first Champions League title back to Canada.
“It’s about little details,” Biello said. “It’s about having that aggressivity in defense, having that confidence to go forward, to make runs and not to be surprised in these moments. When the whistle blows, don’t be surprised, to say, ‘Oh my God, look where I am.’ No. You’re in a final. You’ve got to live that moment and be ready for it.”