Montreal, Puerto Rico take leads to the road
uslsoccer.com

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

TAMPA, FL – They weren’t supposed to be here. In fact, most expected the Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders not to advance from the Preliminary Round. But here they are, six months later, with the advantage in the scoreline heading into their road legs of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals.

Puerto Rico, Montreal have defied the odds in Champions LeagueA two-goal lead for Montreal heading to Mexico and a one-goal advantage for Puerto Rico, which is off to Honduras, may not be enough for them to move onto the semifinals in the eyes of their critics, but there is evidence in their tournament paths to counter those theories.

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Puerto Rico’s path…

The Islanders had narrowly missed out on qualifying for the final edition of the Champions Cup, suffering elimination in the Caribbean Football Union’s semifinals. But with the addition of a third berth to the region in the debut of the expanded Champions League, the opportunity arose for Puerto Rico and they edged out fellow semifinalist San Juan Jabloteh 1-0 on aggregate to claim the third spot.

Then, they saw the draw – Costa Rican powerhouse and 2004 Champions Cup winner LD Alajuelense would be their Preliminary Round opposition.

It may be easy to give favor to the current Honduran league leaders as they head home down only one and having scored a crucial away goal in the event tiebreakers arise given that Puerto Rico is in the midst of the offseason. But the Islanders’ debut against high level international competition came under just as trying of circumstances, facing Alajuelense on the road in the first leg of their preliminary series. The hosts did take the initial advantage, but Puerto Rico leveled in the second half to earn a stunning 1-1 draw. Then a week later at home, after playing away and at home on the weekend in league play, the Islanders found themselves trailing again before once more showing their grit, scoring twice in the final three minutes to win the series.

But certainly, the upstart Islanders couldn’t be expected to finish in the top two of a group that included Mexico’s Santos Laguna and Guatemalan giants Municipal many believed.

Despite being in the final few weeks of the league season, the Islanders really began turning heads when they took advantage of home field in the first two games to top Panama’s Tauro 2-1 in the first match and Santos in shocking 3-1 fashion under extreme weather conditions.

The victories were part of the club’s 17-game unbeaten streak through league and tournament play that amazed many and continued with a 2-2 draw in Guatemala that saw them lead at the break and nearly post a win with a 90th minute tally only to see an answer in stoppage time.

Two nights later the unbeaten run ended at Rochester 2-0 in the first leg of their semifinal league series, but the Islanders charged back again to advance to the league final 3-2. The rally and the upcoming championship game may have proven poor timing for the group-leading Islanders’ visit to Mexico as they fell 3-0 to Santos just days before heading to Vancouver for the USL-1 Final.

And perhaps disheartened by the championship loss to the Whitecaps, the Islanders suffered a 1-0 defeat at home to Municipal, forcing an important showdown with Tauro in the finale – on the road. And once again, Puerto Rico rose to the challenge, scoring twice in the first half and holding on for a 2-2 draw, clinching second place.

Since that night October 29, the Islanders enjoyed the offseason, knowing that it would be shorter than most. So in they came last Thursday evening directly into a high-pressure competitive match with just a few preseason warm-up friendlies under their belts, facing an in season Marathon side that happened to be leading their league with only one loss in eight games and a vast lead in the league scoring table.

Once they took the pitch though, the Islanders fought through the rust and battled valiantly, holding the majority of the better play despite allowing the opening goal just before the break on a defensive miscue. But just as they had done before, the Islanders stormed back in the latter stages and found two goals in the final 17 minutes snare the headlines once again and give themselves an edge heading into the second leg.

Montreal’s path…

The Impact were not supposed to beat out Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC for the Canadian Championship. Looking back, perhaps they were not supposed to beat out their league-rival Vancouver Whitecaps either. After all, the Whitecaps took the season series 2-0-1 and their playoff semifinal series 2-1 on aggregate. Perhaps even more stunning was how Montreal, a traditional league power, rose from the depths.

When the Impact lost their initial Canadian Championship match 1-0 at home to Toronto, they were in the midst of a tough start to the league campaign that saw them win just twice in their first 10 games. Then John Limniatis was installed as head coach and everything changed. Three days after taking the post, he registered a win in his debut. Four days later, he blanked Vancouver 2-0 in their second Canadian Championship match. A week later on the road he repeated the feat to take command of the round-robin event and the Whitecaps gave them a hand as they went on to post a win and draw against Toronto. All the Impact needed was a draw against Toronto in the finale. Despite falling behind early, they beat their former standout goalkeeper Greg Sutton on a corner minutes later and held on for the draw and the accompanying Champions League berth as Canadian Champions.

Montreal broke CONCACAF records with their crowd of over 55,000 in the Quarterfinal first leg (Pepe)The resurgent Canadians then displayed the defensive prowess in the Champions League that they have long been known for in USL-1, all while chasing a playoff berth in the final month of the season. Montreal took a 1-0 lead at home against Nicaraguan champion Real Esteli and finished the Preliminary Round with a scoreless draw on the road to advance to the group stage.

Facing a Joe Public side that demolished MLS’ New England 6-1 in the prelims, Montreal shut down the high flying show from Jamaica with a third straight shutout, 2-0. They stretched the clean bill to four consecutive games against Mexican champions Atlante just two days prior to a playoff match in Seattle.

The first leg in Seattle saw the Impact trailing 2-1, but Montreal rallied two days later at home to take the series 4-3. Showing little affect from their playoff series, the Impact hit the road a few days later to face Olimpia and stunned the Honduran giants 2-1 on their home pitch.

After falling to Vancouver in the league semifinals the following weekend, Montreal took out their disappointment on Joe Public to the tune of 4-1 in the next Champions League match, putting them in excellent position with two to play.

Olimpia’s return bout in Montreal would finish in a 1-1 draw, making the Impact the first team to qualify for the Quarterfinals and rendering their final match on the road in Mexico nearly meaningless. The Impact, though, made Atlante fight for the top spot in the group, taking the initial lead in the match only to see a goal in the final seven minutes give the hosts the 2-1 victory and the top seed via tiebreakers. It was the first time in 12 Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League games that they allowed two goals in a single match.

Finishing second left the Impact with the task of facing one of the three Mexican group winners, but perhaps buoyed by Puerto Rico’s efforts against Santos, Montreal came in confident against their visitors last week despite being in the midst of preseason. The addition of clutch scorer Eduardo Sebrango from Vancouver proved the perfect match given his proven track record of being able to come out of the offseason in form. Sebrango scored both goals and the defense, after a shaky start, returned to its usual bend but don’t break style as Montreal surprisingly shut out the Mexican side 2-0. And considering the Impact have yet to lose in the Champions League by more than one goal, the pressure will certainly be on the Mexican hosts in the second leg.

Last Week: Marathon 1 :: 2 Puerto Rico | Santos Laguna 0 :: 2 Montreal

Previous CONCACAF Champions League Match Reports
Group C – Montreal
Group D – Puerto Rico
Match 1: 9/17 vs Joe Public 2-0 W
Match 1: 9/16 vs Tauro FC 2-1 W
Match 2: 9/24 vs Atlante FC 0-0 D
Match 2: 9/23 vs Santos Laguna 3-1 W
Match 3: 10/1 @ CD Olimpia 2-1 W
Match 3: 10/1 @ CSD Municipal 2-2 D
Match 4: 10/8 @ Joe Public 4-1 W
Match 4: 10/8 @ Santos Laguna 0-3 L
Match 5: 10/21 vs CD Olimpia 1-1 D
Match 5: 10/23 vs CSD Municipal 0-1 L
Match 6: 10/28 @ Atlante FC 1-2 L
Match 6: 10/29 @ Tauro FC 2-2 D
Preliminary Round – Montreal
Preliminary Round – Puerto Rico
Leg One: 8/27 vs Real Esteli 1-0
Leg One: 8/27 @ Alajuelense 1-1
Leg Two: 9/2 @ Real Esteli 0-0
Leg Two: 9/3 vs Alajuelense 2-1

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Edwin Jusino
Director Ejecutivo de FutbolBoricua.net. Actualmente estudiante de Historia de las Américas en programa combinado Maestría/PhD de la Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, Recinto Metropolitano. Lleva más de una década cubriendo el fútbol de Puerto Rico. Actualmente está trabajando su disertación doctoral sobre el pasado presidente de la FPF, el Dr. Roberto Monroig. Hincha del Club Atlético de Madrid y de la Selección Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico. Puede contactarle via twitter o Instagram en @erjusinoa