MONTREAL – If the Montreal Impact continue their winning ways in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, Ignacio Piatti knows who he’ll be sparing a thought.
Twice this year, Piatti returned home to Argentina for his loved ones. In March, his dying grandfather lived long enough to say goodbye to Piatti, who paid him a couple of tributes on the field, most notably at Estadio Azteca in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final.
Then, last month, his father Oscar fell ill. Piatti, called to his bedside, spent 10 days with him. He returned to play on Oct. 10 in Colorado, and dad is doing much better now.
“I lived in Argentina for so long,” Piatti told MLSsoccer.com. “We’ve made a lot of sacrifices here. We’re far away. We have to win for all of that.”
Piatti believes that the Impact can give some joy to his father. They’ve won all five games since he returned, becoming one of the hottest teams in MLS. They’re going for six this Sunday, in Leg 2 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against Columbus Crew SC (5 pm ET; ESPN, ESPN Deportes in the US; TSN, RDS1 in Canada).
From that Colorado game on, Piatti has contributed two goals and three assists. One of each definitely had more of an Argentinean taste than the rest. Piatti was playing on the left wing when he scored one and assisted another in Montreal's 3-0 Knockout Round win against Toronto FC. He hadn’t played that position since his first handful of games for Montreal, after which former head coach Frank Klopas shifted him to a central role.
“I feel really well on the left, because it’s my position,” Piatti said. “I played on the left for a long time, in Argentina, for example. When I came here, Frank slotted me behind the forward. I’d rather play on the left. I’m comfortable there.”
Highlights from his stay at Argentine club San Lorenzo support his assessment. For more than a year, Piatti has entertained MLS fans with his ability to take on defenders, but moving to the left gives him more chances to run into space at full throttle, unsettling markers and creating danger.
Piatti is constantly on the lookout for space. Even when marked tightly, his deft touches often succeed in shifting the ball away from the defenders while retaining control. And, as Piatti finds more and more room on the left with a striker like Didier Drogba as a partner – “when he drops back, he tells me to go forward, he makes a lot of sacrifices for the team,” Piatti said – Montreal fans see more and more of the Piatti that contributed so much to San Lorenzo’s Copa Libertadores run in 2014.
“When I’ve got a lot of space, I’m comfortable, because I’m also checking out Drogba’s movements – maybe I can play a one-two with him,” Piatti says. “I’m feeling good on the left. I’ve told Mauro [Biello, interim head coach], and he put me there. If I have to defend, no worries. I stay back.”
Ah, yes. Defending.
When Klopas opted to play Piatti behind the forward, the reasoning was that his defensive duties would be limited, thus keeping him fresh for the attacking phase. Piatti concedes that there’s more back-and-forth running in MLS than anywhere he’d played before. But to interim head coach Mauro Biello, Piatti’s defensive work is just fine.
“I don’t want Nacho going into tackles to win the ball back,” Biello said. “What’s important is that Nacho positions himself in such a way that the other team can’t play a pass. If he does that, the guy on the other side that has the ball will reason that the flank is locked down. … That’s what I’m looking for. Other players, I do want to see winning the ball back and going for the challenge. But from what I’ve seen of Nacho in the defensive phase, he’s done well.”
Matched up against makeshift right back Jackson in the Knockout Round against TFC, Piatti largely won the battle. He made 13 recoveries, the most by any player in that game, while Jackson delivered exactly one ball forward into the attacking third.
Harrison Afful, in Montreal's 2-1 Conference Semifinal Leg 1 win against Columbus three days later, was another matter. Afful got past Piatti more effectively, offering several balls in behind, while also tracking back to mark Piatti more effectively than Toronto.
“They’re different,” Piatti said of Jackson and Afful. “The first game against Toronto, I played behind Didier. And the second game, I don’t think Toronto were expecting me to play on the left. I think it was a surprise, I don’t know. That’s why we did well. When Marco [Donadel] had the ball, he was looking for me.
“Then, Columbus saw that,” he continues. “Afful is a good player. He’s very quick. Now, when Donadel’s looking over to that side, [Afful] is right by me. We have to change certain things. But Columbus have to find a goal. For our part, as we did the last time in Columbus [taking a 2-0 lead], we’re looking for a goal in order to be more peaceful.”
Peace has been lacking for Piatti. He celebrated the New Year while still in rehab for tendinitis. Then his grandpa died. Then his dad gave him a scare.
Thankfully, soccer’s been good to him; he has 12 goals and 11 assists in all competitions this season.
“On the entire season, we were very good, the whole team,” Piatti said. “We reached the [CONCACAF] Champions League final. That’s not easy. We’ll see what comes next. When Montreal reach another final, we’ll have to stop and say that we were already a good team, that we’ve been good. This year was a good year, with Didier coming here and all that."
Crew SC stand in the way this Sunday. Piatti’s glad that his dad will get to watch, but he doesn't want to settle for just one more game in 2015.
"It’s not over," he said. "We still have to move on to another final. We have everything here in Montreal to win MLS [Cup].”