MONTREAL – The MLS season is finally getting underway.
This is how it feels for the Montreal Impact, anyway. Their focus, in the last two-and-a-half months, has been on cup competitions, with a few league games sprinkled here and there.
As a result, every other team in MLS has played at least seven games, while Montreal have only played four and sit bottom of the Eastern Conference (0-2-2, 2 pts). They want to make up the lost ground starting this Saturday, with a home game against the Portland Timbers (2-3-4, 10 pts) and a clear long-term objective in mind: a decisive top six finish (4 pm ET; TSN in Canada, MLS Live in USA).
“We don’t want to sneak [into the playoffs],” head coach Frank Klopas told reporters on Friday. “We want to be a consistent team that plays well both at home and on the road. So for us, it doesn’t change. Our approach is always that we need to go into a game, whether it’s home or away, and win the game.”
Getting back above the red line will take time. But this Portland game will be the first of three straight at home. At the very least, this will be an opportunity to get themselves back into the thick of things in the East.
“We’re behind the other teams by many games, but we can’t let them dig us a deeper hole,” Impact defender Bakary Soumare said. “We need to win tomorrow. We have to line up some wins in the league so we can stay with the leading pack.”
Montreal rest on a 1-0 win against Toronto FC in Amway Canadian Championship where, Soumare feels, they've showed that squad rotation doesn’t interfere with competitiveness. But the Impact have yet to win in league play.
In order to break the ice, they concentrate on the little things, the little objectives one can focus on without pressure getting overwhelming.
“Sometimes, you can say that you never want to lose at home. It’s a good goal to set,” Klopas said. “We don’t do too many. Point total, but also just to say, never lose two games in a row; score more than two goals in a game, because then we feel that our ability to do so would put ourselves in a good spot to win games; number of clean sheets. Little things that we need to improve from last year – the amount of goals we concede.”
Montreal will need to be more secure defensively in the league, though this midweek’s ACC game was a good first step. They’ve allowed six goals in four games, including two in three minutes in their only home game so far, a 2-2 draw against Orlando City.
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“Look at the injuries we have. You can’t expect too many big changes [to the lineup],” Klopas said. “I think we have to rotate the guys, and we did it in a smart way in the last game. Some guys have to play, because we just don’t have any other options right now with the injuries that we have.”
The feeling in the Impact camp is that Portland are a better attacking team than they’ve showed this season. They also expect them to be buoyed by the pending returns of Diego Valeri – who came on as a sub last Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps – and club captain Will Johnson – who played 90 minutes for Timbers 2 on Sunday – from long-term injuries.
Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush praised the Timbers’ style, insisting on how many chances they can create with sustained possession. But this season, he’s even more impressed by their defense.
“This year, they haven’t given up as many chances,” Bush said. “From that side of the ball, they’ve definitely improved. It's going to be an interesting game to see how they come out and play. They’ve got different pieces that they’re trying to figure out how to use now, but they’re always going to be a good team, and they’re always going to have quality players on the field.”