Montreal Impact entered Sunday’s game against Columbus Crew having lost on all six occasions that they’d conceded the first goal this season. Columbus, by contrast, were undefeated when scoring first.
Late strikes by the Impact’s Zarek Valentin and Patrice Bernier ended both of those records as Montreal fought back to claim a 2-1 win at Saputo Stadium after Milovan Mirosevic edged the visitors ahead.
The victory pulled the Canadians within one point of Columbus in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference standings, albeit having played four additional games. Head Coach Jesse Marsch’s side deservedly earned the three points after controlling possession and outshooting their opponents by 25-9.
Marsch made two changes from Montreal’s midweek 3-1 reverse at home against Sporting Kansas City. Lamar Neagle and Sanna Nyassi slotted into the wide positions of a 4-2-3-1 formation supporting Italian striker Marco Di Vaio. Davy Arnaud and Felipe Martins were suspended due to yellow-card accumulation.
Montreal have conceded the highest amount of goals in MLS this year. Injuries to Marsch’s preferred central-defensive partnership of former Internazionale duo Matteo Ferrari and Nelson Rivas haven’t helped their cause. Hassoun Camara and Shavar Thomas again deputized for the former Italian and Colombian internationals.
Columbus Head Coach Robert Warzycha made three changes from the Crew’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on June 30. Chad Marshall returned to central defense in place of Julius James after recovering from a concussion. Trinidadian midfielder Kevan George replaced Danny O’Rourke in midfield after the hometown favorite picked up an ankle sprain.
Mirosevic started as a supporting forward behind Emilio Renteria in a 4-4-2 formation with rookie Aaron Schoenfeld dropping to the substitutes’ bench. Schoenfeld was originally acquired by Montreal in the second round of January’s Supplemental Draft before Columbus acquired his rights in exchange for a conditional pick in the 2013 Supplemental Draft.
Sluggish Build-Up Ensures Scoreless First Half
Neither Impact goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts nor opposite number Andy Gruenebaum were severely tested during an uninspired first half that saw both sides fail to move the ball forward at speed.
Justin Mapp created the game’s first opening on eight minutes with an intelligent run into space behind Crew right-back Sebastian Miranda. The former Chicago Fire winger took Di Vaio’s flick-on and delivered a dangerous low ball across the penalty area that Nyassi slashed wide at the back post. It was a difficult chance given Nemanja Vukovic’s close proximity.
Columbus’ slowness at building play out of the back was compounded by a static midfield. That left Renteria isolated up front, and the striker scuffed an ambitious shot harmlessly wide of Ricketts’ goal on 10 minutes after receiving a rare touch.
Tony Tchani stretched Montreal’s defense on 15 minutes with an exquisite through ball behind Jeb Brovsky into the path of Chris Birchall after the former New York Red Bulls midfielder had pirouetted away from Bernier on the halfway line. Birchall’s cutback fell a yard behind Renteria’s run.
The visitors quickened the pace of their attack to create their first chance on 21 minutes. Eddie Gaven nodded Vukovic’s long ball into Mirosevic’s feet and raced into Montreal’s penalty area for a return pass. Mirosevic continued his forward movement with a run to the near post, but Ricketts closed down the Chilean international’s shooting angle and blocked with his legs.
Tchani stretched the hosts again with another excellent low cross-field pass on 27 minutes that forced Bernier to halt Gaven’s burst forward.
Mapp looked most likely to unlock the Crew’s defense as he drifted deep to pick up possession. Too often he found himself with only three supporting attackers against five Columbus defenders, which allowed center-backs Marshall and Josh Williams to snuff out any hint of a threat from Di Vaio.
Bernier provided some ingenuity on 36 minutes with a lovely turn in midfield followed by a slide-rule pass to release Nyassi. The Gambian winger held off Vukovic before being thwarted by Williams’ superb sliding block inside the Crew’s penalty area.
Impact Up The Pace
Montreal raised the tempo at the start of the second half and created a flurry of chances that should have put them ahead.
Di Vaio flighted an enticing cross behind the Crew’s defense on 49 minutes that found Neagle arriving unmarked near the penalty spot. The former Seattle Sounders winger planted his header wide of target when it seemed easier to score.
Marshall threw himself in the way of Mapp’s drive one minute later, blocking the shot with a combination of his chest and arms. Referee Matthew Foerster ignored the Impact’s hopeful appeals for a spot kick.
The veteran Di Vaio was beginning to threaten regularly. The Italian, who turns 36 on July 15, dropped short on 52 minutes before spinning away from George in midfield. Nyassi made a great right-to-left diagonal run to receive Di Vaio’s through ball. Both Gruenebaum and an offside flag prevented the deadlock from being broken.
Mapp tested the goalkeeper’s handling three minutes later after cutting in from the right wing to fire a low shot on target.
Di Vaio scored 144 goals in Serie A during a career that included spells with Parma, Juventus and Bologna. That total puts him above Italian legends like Christian Vieri, Vincenzo Montella, Alessandro Altobelli, Gianni Rivera and Gianluca Vialli in the league’s all-time leading scorers’ list. Di Vaio could well be the best pure striker ever to grace MLS. He’ll need to shake off some of his current rustiness to prove it.
Mapp released the Rome-born poacher with a delightful ball over the top on 59 minutes. Di Vaio controlled it on his chest before scuffing a left-foot shot wide of Gruenebaum’s far post. The goalkeeper wasn’t troubled a minute later either when Di Vaio fired wide from outside the penalty area.
Crew Punish Defensive Slip
It’s become a feature of the modern game for teams to leave their goalposts unguarded when defending corner kicks. Columbus tended to leave both posts unmanned throughout this game while Montreal only stationed Nyassi at the back post. Mirosevic took advantage of this to give the visitors the lead on 64 minutes.
The former Universidad Catolica playmaker made a front post run to meet Vukovic’s inswinging cross ahead of Mapp. His header beat Ricketts inside the near corner – an area that Bernier had vacated as the ball traveled toward the 6-yard box.
Mirosevic had otherwise struggled to influence the game. Schoenfeld replaced him after 70 minutes.
Montreal’s Width Key To Breaking Down Crew
Marsch introduced Sinisa Ubiparipovic for the disappointing Neagle on 71 minutes and pulled Mapp to the left side to try to kickstart Montreal’s flagging wing play. It took the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup winner just four minutes to deliver a wicked low cross that the Crew struggled to clear. Brovsky advanced onto the loose ball to fire in a shot that Gruenebaum parried away to his right.
It was the first time that Montreal’s left-back had pushed into Columbus’ defensive third, and a similar raid down the right by Valentin resulted in the equalizer on 78 minutes.
Mapp was involved again down the wing before Bernier found Di Vaio in the inside-left channel. The Italian turned inside and passed to Nyassi on the edge of the Crew’s penalty area as Valentin made a surging run on the overlap. The former Chivas USA defender took a touch before drilling a low shot into the far corner before either Vukovic or Gaven, tucked too far inside, could close him down.
The goal was easily preventable. Columbus had nine players involved in the defensive phase against just six Montreal attackers, but the presence of Valentin in an advanced position caught the Crew’s left side off-guard.
Gruenebaum made a vital block to stop Nyassi two minutes later as his defense disappeared. Warzycha sought to stem the tide in the final 10 minutes by bringing on Bernardo Amor and Dilly Duka for Vukovic and Renteria. The substitutions were in vain.
Referee Foerster awarded Montreal a penalty with just two minutes remaining after Di Vaio tried to work a one-two into the box against a retreating Columbus defense. Mapp arrived on the blind side of Birchall to reach the ball first, and the back-tracking midfielder’s challenge sent the winger sprawling.
Bernier coolly stepped up to wrong-foot Gruenebaum and give the Impact a much-deserved win.
Montreal’s performances during their debut season in MLS have generally been better than their 6-11-3 record suggests. Marsch’s team impressed in a narrow 1-0 loss at Real Salt Lake on April 4 and have registered impressive wins at Kansas City and at home against Seattle and Houston Dynamo.
A recent slump of three straight defeats – for a combined aggregate score of 9-1 – threatened to undermine much of their good work. This win puts them back on the right track ahead of six straight Eastern Conference clashes against Philadelphia Union (away and home), New England Revolution (home and away), Houston (away) and New York (home) that will determine whether a play-off berth is within their reach.