For 88 minutes on Wednesday evening, it looked as if the Montreal Impact would spring an improbable upset over Club América at the Estadio Azteca. Instead, they will be playing the ‘what-if’ game on the flight back home, even with an impressive result in their pockets.
Ignacio Piatti’s 16th-minute goal looked to be the decider in the two teams’ first leg clash in the CONCACAF Champions League final, setting the stage for a monumental upset, but Mexico international Oribe Peralta nodded in a corner kick in the 89th minute to knot the series at 1-1 heading into the return leg on April 29 at Stade Olympique (8pm ET, FOX Sports 2).
Center back Laurent Ciman started the Impact’s goalscoring play with an inch-perfect diagonal ball down the field to a charging Hassoun Camara. The veteran defender took one touch to lay it off to Dominic Oduro, who slipped the ball in for Dilly Duka to dummy, leaving Piatti with the tiniest of openings for a one-time finish.
It was one of the best looks of the game for Montreal, who relied heavily on a standout defensive performance against a relentless América side that nonetheless looked a far cry from the team that scored six in their semifinal second leg against Herediano.
América finally managed to make one of their numerous opportunities count in late in the game, when the substitute Peralta rose up above his marker, Calum Mallace, to turn in a Rubens Sambueza free kick from near the left corner.
The home side came at Montreal early and often and were undeterred by Piatti’s opener. Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush denied them a golden chance at a quick equalizer in the 21st minute, when he sprawled to his right to stop a powerful shot from Sambueza from just inside the area.
América had the ball in the back of the net in the 26th minute after Michael Arroyo finished off a through pass from Darwin Quintero, but the strike was called back for offside. However, replays indicated that Impact left back Donny Toia may have been keeping Arroyo onside.
It would be one of a few controversial decisions from the refereeing crew led by Honduran center official Hector Rodriguez. The Montreal camp will surely question his choice in the 45th minute to show only a yellow card to América defender Osvaldo Martinez, as the Paraguayan clearly pulled down Oduro from behind as the speedster was about to go one-on-one with the opposing goalkeeper.
Another one of the Impact’s best chances of the game came in the 28th minute, as Piatti took the ball from inside the Montreal half on the counterattack, forgoing the opportunity to play in Oduro and instead beating a defender and drawing América ‘keeper Moises Munoz off his line, only to see his chipped attempt go wide.
Outside of those chances in the first half, the hosts were by far the more endeavoring of the two teams, outshooting the Impact 28-4 for the game and putting nine shots on target to the opposition’s two. América also racked up 16 corners to Montreal’s three and held 67.1% of possession on the evening.
Despite his goal, Peralta will likely wonder about a couple of other chances he passed up in the second half – most notably in the 61st minute when he glanced a cross from Quintero just wide, and in the 90th minute when he skewed a shot over from point-blank range after a pinball sequence in the Montreal area.
Sambueza also had an opportunity at one of the goals of the tournament in the 67th minute, striking a long-distance shot with the outside of his favored left foot, only to see his effort come down off the crossbar and back onto the field of play before being nodded harmlessly back to Bush.
Despite their opponents’ statistical dominance, an eight-save outing from Bush and a mostly outstanding performance from their back line helped to give the Impact a slight advantage heading into the second leg. With the away-goals rule in effect, América will have to score at least one goal to claim their sixth CONCACAF title in a week’s time in Montreal.
However, the Impact will have to do without Bush in the return leg. The American goalkeeper picked up a yellow card after clashing with América's Paul Aguilar following the late goal, and that will put him out of the game in Montreal due to caution accumulation. The absence was confirmed by both CONCACAF and Montreal coach Frank Klopas after the game, and with backup Eric Kronberg cup-tied and 20-year-old Maxime Crépeau injured, on-loan FC Edmonton goalkeeper John Smits is likely to start in his place.