Impact open CONCACAF Champions League final with tough test at América

One by one, the goals poured past the beleaguered Herediano goalkeeper Daniel Cambronero without reply. Darwin Quintero and Dario Benedetto erased the first leg wobbles within eight minutes. Benedetto completed his hat trick inside the first half-hour and snatched his fourth after 30 minutes.

Club América entered the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal with a two-goal deficit to overturn after a poor opening leg performance in Costa Rica. Las Aguilas ended the night as overwhelming favorites to reach the FIFA Club World Cup after flexing their muscles for all to see during the 6-0 victory in Mexico City a fortnight ago.

The entire affair represented a daunting statement of intent, but it did not stop Montréal Impact from plotting América’s demise in the final, either. It is now down to the Impact to find some way to avoid a similar fate in the first leg at Estadio Azteca on Wednesday (live, 8:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2, FOX Sports Go).

In some ways, the Impact — primed for the knockout stage with a considerable investment in a Mexico-based training camp and warmed for this daunting assignment with trying ties against Pachuca and Alajuelense — represent an intriguing foil for this showdown.

Montréal is the first MLS team to reach this juncture since Real Salt Lake four years ago. It boasts the necessary blend of youth and experience and the vital dashes of guile and pace to present problems on the counter in difficult circumstances. It also grasps the magnitude of the tournament itself and responds in the appropriate fashion.

Impact investor/operator Joey Saputo shipped his players and his technical staffers to Mexico last Thursday to start the preparations for this first leg and worked with the league to reschedule matches to clear the way for total focus on this final.

All of those carefully laid plans provide the Impact with the foundation necessary to tackle this challenge, but they do not guarantee success. There is no way to predict how the Impact will cope with playing in front of 100,000 supporters at Estadio Azteca or respond if the home side storms out of the gate as it did against Herediano.

América remains fully capable of brushing aside the Impact — even at their best — if the team from the second leg of the semifinals appears once more. A repeat performance is not guaranteed, though. América boss Gustavo Matosas must make compile his defense carefully with Ventura Alvarado and Paolo Goltz suspended and must spark his inconsistent side toward its best after a humbling 4-0 defeat to Querétaro at the weekend.

If América rise to the occasion as expected, then the Impact will struggle to counteract its attacking menace. Benedetto and Quintero pose a considerable threat up front even with the recovering Oribe Peralta likely to start the match on the bench ahead of the Clasico against Chivas on Sunday. Osvaldo Martinez and Rubens Sambueza provide plenty of creativity and incisiveness from midfield. Pablo Aguilar marshals an experienced defense. Moises Munoz is on the road to a return after struggling with injuries over the past couple of months, but Hugo Gonzalez may retain his place in goal nevertheless.

In order to address those inherent concerns, the Impact must open brightly and set out a resolute shape from the outset. The visitors must lean on Laurent Ciman and Bakary Soumaré to establish terms in central defense, rely upon Nigel Reo-Coker to break up play in midfield and trust Ignacio Piatti to pull the strings on the break.

Each and every player in the side must embrace the challenge from the opening whistle to provide a platform for success. As Herediano showed in that second leg, these affairs can spiral out of control when América musters a full head of steam at the outset. There is a long game at play here with the second leg slated for sold-out Olympic Stadium next Wednesday. For the Impact, the entire first leg will serve as an exercise to ensure the return leg holds tangible meaning next week.

“We’ve been working hard in training to play a solid road game and return to Montreal in a good spot for the home leg,” Ciman said in a statement. “It’s going to be a difficult game and we will have to defend a lot. They have good attacking players who like to play the one-two in the final third, so we will have to manage the game well.”

It is a tenet worth cherishing as the Impact prepare for the most important match in team history. The lessons from Herediano’s semifinal demise are glaringly clear at this point. Montréal must learn from those missteps and tailor the approach accordingly to return home with a chance of lifting the title next week.