Reaching Major League Soccer's playoffs in just their second season in the league is a significant achievement for Montreal Impact, but the club's late season form has somewhat spoiled the party. Montreal head to Houston for the Eastern Conference Knockout Round match on Thursday (live on TSN at 8:30pm et), but the Impact will need to significantly improve their performance if they are to stand any chance of success.
It's the very definition of backing into the playoffs. Montreal's 1-0 loss at Toronto FC in their final game of the regular season took the club's fate out of their own hands, and ensured a nervous 24 hours waiting and watching other teams trying to snatch their playoff place. Montreal fell from third to fifth during the course of the weekend's action, but just held on thanks to New York Red Bulls win over Chicago Fire. It was a situation no-one would have expected in mid-season when the Impact were challenging at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Marco Schallibaum's men started the season as the form team in MLS, winning their first four matches, and amassing 29 points from 14 matches, but a late season slump saw the Impact drop down the standings. They head into the playoffs having won just once in eight matches and only earning four of a possible 24 points. Only DC United, the league's worst team, took fewer points in the final eight games.
Injuries have been an issue during the final stretch. With Alessandro Nesta and Jeb Brovsky missing games, Montreal's depth at the back has been tested, and provided some minutes for youngsters Karl Ouimette, Maxim Tissot and Wandrille Lefevre. In midfield, Argentine Designated Player Hernan Bernadello and Canadian international Patrice Bernier have also spent time on the sidelines.
Against Toronto, Montreal did have chances to tie the game and Reds' goalkeeper Joe Bendik made some excellent saves, but the first half performance from the Impact was flat and the midfield battle was lost.
Midfield is one of Houston's strengths, and Montreal's ability to grasp control of that area will likely go a long way to determining the outcome of the match. Boniek Garcia, Warren Creavalle, Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis have the ability to dictate the tempo and run the game from midfield so the Impact will need to ensure they don't allow the Dynamo to dominate that area of the pitch.
Houston secured a playoff place thanks to a 2-1 win at DC United on the final day of the regular season and finished the season quite strongly, winning four of their last seven. One of those victories came against Montreal earlier this month, when they beat the Impact 1-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium with an early goal from Ricardo Clark.
The Dynamo will have home advantage. They also have the benefit of having been in this position before. They won at Chicago Fire last year in the Knockout Round on their way to reaching MLS Cup for the second successive season.
So Houston are clear favourites, but the Impact have matched up well against the Dynamo this year. In fact, in the two games played at Stade Saputo Montreal dominated against Houston, winning 2-0 in June, and then demolishing the Dynamo 5-0 in August. Even in the 1-0 loss in Texas a few weeks ago, Montreal had a few good chances to tie the game and could also have had a penalty called in their favour. Plus with 20 goal Marco Di Vaio in the ranks, there's always the chance they will get a goal. They just need to ensure the Italian gets the service he needs.
It's set up to be an entertaining night in Texas. There has to be a winner, so if the match is tied after 90 minutes, there could be extra time and penalties. The winner will move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinal to face the MLS Supporters Shield winners New York Red Bulls over two legs, with the first match being played on Sunday.
Montreal Impact at Houston Dynamo is live on MLS on TSN on Thursday night. The action starts at 8:30pm et on TSN with Luke Wileman, Jason deVos and Kristian Jack.