WASHINGTON – Fans around MLS are quick to make jokes about RFK Stadium. But it's a classic downtown venue with a history and charm all its own, especially when the playoffs roll around.
Much the same can be said about the Montreal Impact. Especially the grizzled, cosmopolitan IMFC squad that strutted into RFK on Thursday night and rope-a-doped their D.C. United hosts right into offseason oblivion.
Superbly spearheaded by the imperious Ignacio Piatti, the Impact made light of their recent Didier Drogba drama and masterfully applied a deadly dose of Quebecois catenaccio that will be very familiar to their litany of CONCACAF Champions League victims back in 2014-2015.
“Look, we know what we're good at,” said veteran Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier in a happy visitors locker room underneath 2400 E Capitol Street. “Once we're organized and we're structured, we have talent up front that can go on a transition and counterattack and get those chances. And we showed patience, and we believed in what we were doing. It worked out well today.”
At 37, Bernier was the oldest member of a savvy Montreal lineup featuring just two players under age 30. And while United rode the league's hottest run of form into this Knockout Round match (5-2-3 in their last 10 regular season matches), it all fizzled into the wet Washington air when a fired-up Laurent Ciman struck on a 4th-minute corner kick.
That played right into the hands of the Impact's 1-2-3 punch of Piatti, speedster Dominic Oduro and crafty frontman Matteo Mancosu. Just before halftime, Piatti truly put United behind the 8-ball with a run of deceptive guile capped by a delicate delivery to Mancosu's stealthy run behind a static D.C. defense.
“If you give up a goal against them, you're in trouble,” said D.C. coach Ben Olsen postgame.
“Piatti is a superb player, and he showed it today. That ball for the second goal was extremely classy,” he added. “Now it's 2-0 and now you're chasing the game, against one of the better counterattacking teams of the last couple of years.”
From that epic CCL run to last year's playoff caper, Montreal's vets have been in these situations before. On Thursday they spotted a leverage point even before the opening whistle. With regular DC starter Sean Franklin sidelined by a calf injury, D.C. fielded converted midfielder Nick DeLeon at his right back position – just the space that Piatti likes to work in.
“We saw that matchup and we were very confident in Nacho's ability to get at him,” said Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush. “DeLeon's a very good player, but he'd be the first to tell you that's not his natural position. So with Franklin not on the field, Piatti was able to get in open space – and when you get that first goal, it makes things a hell of a lot easier for guys like Nacho and Matteo and Dom, because then there's space for them.”
The New York Red Bulls – whose head coach, Jesse Marsch, was watching intently from RFK's mezzanine – had best be warned.
“It’s a beautiful thing to pull out to a 2-0 lead in the first half. It let us settle in and be a bit more comfortable with the ball; obviously it also forced them to push forward and we managed to grab a goal on the counterattack,” said a businesslike Piatti afterwards.
“We have five games left. Four to be the Eastern Conference champions. But everything will depend on this series with the Red Bulls; they’re obviously a tough team to deal with, especially at home.”
In his day, Olsen played alongside the litany of South American maestros who illuminated this place for United in years past, from Marco Etcheverry to Jaime Moreno to Christian Gomez. On this night, however it was the visiting Argentine Piatti who commanded the RFK stage, tormenting D.C. on the break and reminding everyone that the Impact were a force to be reckoned with well before Drogba hit town.
“Nacho was fantastic this night. He was the leader today,” said defender Hassoun Camara. “He was the guy who dictated the tempo and we are very proud to have a No. 10 like this.”
Said Bernier: “Nacho is Nacho. He's a difference maker. We do the job to allow him to have the space to operate, and when we're able to do that and we're composed and we win the ball back, he has that quality to be able to break loose and open gaps for himself and for other players. This year he's been fantastic – for me, easily top three in the league.”
Montreal were underdogs in Thursday's match and will be again when they meet the No. 1-seeded Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And Sunday's first leg at Stade Saputo will require a quick recovery for the Impact's aging bodies.
But with Piatti on the field and an organized rearguard in place behind him, anything can happen over the next 180 minutes.
“We knew all along that he's an unbelievable player,” said Bush of Piatti. “He's done it now for the last five, six weeks after a little bit of a spell where he didn't score many goals. But now he's back and I think he's going to carry us now to wherever it is we're going to go.”