By the second weekend of June, the Montreal Impact's season was already hanging in the balance, slipping nearer to a scrap to not be bottom of the league rather than fighting for an Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs place.
The Impact had lost 11 of their first 15 games and languished second-last in the Eastern Conference, above only a D.C. United side who had a uniquely light schedule that was road-heavy at the beginning of the season to accommodate the opening of Audi Field in July.
Ten times over those opening 15 games the Impact conceded two or more goals while star Ignacio Piatti scored or assisted 11 of their 15 goals, playing the role of one-man band far too often. As great as Piatti is, the creative burden too often fell disproportionately upon his No. 10 jersey.
It's been a wild ride so far in the East. 👀 pic.twitter.com/dHEuBAMMGq— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 18, 2018
Montreal have been on the ascent since losing to FCD, going 8-3-3 in their last 14 games. On Saturday, they host NYCFC (7:30 p.m. ET | TVAS -- full TV & streaming info) with a chance to tighten their grip on a playoff place with D.C. getting the weekend off.
Head coach Remi Garde knew his side was conceding too many goals. He long lamented a "lack of talent" but figured out how to maximize the players at his disposal than to hope for reinforcements that largely weren't coming through that door.
"Montreal will do what they've been doing since mid-May: Sit deep and absorb as much pressure as possible, then hit on the break."
It's simple, but there's no better way to sum up how they've tightened up the ranks than how Doyle did in a sentence. Mix in the midseason addition of Bacary Sagna and Garde has manufactured a solid enough defensive unit to see the team climb the table. After hemorrhaging 31 goals in their first 15 games, the Impact have conceded 15 over their last 14 games, including five shutouts.
The Impact had to deal with losing one of the best defenders in the league, Laurent Ciman to LAFC, and didn't adjust well to start the season.
"They are doing well. I think it was difficult for them at first," Hassoun Camara told MLSsoccer.com. Camara spent his entire six-year MLS career with Montreal and is now an analyst for TVA Sports. "They lost Ciman, I think that was the biggest problem that they had to deal with… But they work very hard together and don’t give goals away."
The constant in Montreal's season -- really, their last three seasons -- is the quality play of Piatti.
He earned his third consecutive MLS All-Star nod, has already smashed his personal best mark for assists, 12 this season, and is in position to challenge his previous career best of 17 goals, as he currently has 13.
"In the beginning of the season, I was expecting from Nacho how he could help the team work as a collective unit," Camara said. "For sure we know how important Nacho is to the team, he’s one of the best players in the league, a lot of goals.”
But even when Piatti was involved in goals at a league-leading rate, the Impact weren't always winning. Equally important as Piatti continuing his form has been his teammates stepping up and relieving that burden Piatti had too often shouldered alone.
Since Week 15, the Impact have scored 26 goals. Piatti has been directly involved in 14 of them (54 percent). That still may be a bit high for Garde's liking, but it's down from his 11 goals/assists in their first 15 (73 percent). It's simple, Montreal haven't rewritten the tactics manual to change their fortunes, instead getting back to basics and doing them well.
Multiple players have raised their outputs. First and foremost, Alejandro Silva has scored four goals and added 10 assists. All of his goal involvements except for two assists have come since the loss to Dallas. Saphir Taider has six goals and six assists from the midfield, all but one goal coming since early June. Quincy Amarikwa has added a new dimension to the team after being acquired in August.
Now, the team looks nothing like they did in May. They are genuine playoff contenders and continue to prove people wrong. With five games left, the Impact are now favored to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight.
Can they hold off the challengers and make the playoffs? Camara thinks so.
"They have this position that they are underrated, and when they are in this position, they’re very good. … I think that they are going to do something great before the end of the season," Camara said.