For the Montreal Impact, it seemed like their loss in the CONCACAF Champions League last year would linger for a long time as their most heartbreaking defeat. An MLS team had never won the modern format of the competition and Montreal came excruciatingly close.
But then Wednesday happened, a wild shootout that saw the Impact take and lose a lead over Toronto FC in aggregate goals twice before letting a spot in the MLS Cup slip through their fingers.
The loss in Toronto capped off a series that saw the Impact execute their attacking game plan to perfection at times, only to leak preventable, heart-wrenching goals and come up short at the very end. If Montreal had beaten their bitter rival, Toronto FC, they would’ve landed in the first MLS Cup of the club’s five-year history — but instead, after an extra-time loss, fans can only wonder what could’ve been.
While Montreal coach Mauro Biello will surely be lamenting his team’s struggles in giving up set-piece goals, the Impact had zeroed in on an identity that made them difficult to beat throughout the playoffs. They realized that playing direct — especially to striker Didier Drogba — didn’t fit their personnel and they rediscovered who they were when they made their memorable run to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
It was as much tactics as it was just their core identity: They absorbed pressure, used the midfield trio of Patrice Bernier, Marco Donadel and Hernan Bernardello to control the game's tempo, and used their speed on the flanks to strike in transition. That allowed Ignacio Piatti, Dominic Oduro and Matteo Mancosu to get space and time close to the goal to create magic.
It worked again and again for the Impact over the playoffs. In the play-in round, they dispatched a D.C. United team that had been the league’s best team in the closing weeks of the regular season. They used it to stop the best team of the Eastern Conference this year, the New York Red Bulls. And it was nearly enough against Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final.
The Montreal Impact were just a pair of goals from becoming the first Canadian team in the MLS Cup. Instead, that historical honor goes to their rivals in Toronto. Two goals was the same margin that Montreal fell short by in last year’s Champions League final against Club América.
In both competitions — the Champions League and this Eastern Conference final — the Impact left the first leg of the series in strong position. Against Club América, they were level 1-1 after 90 minutes, and against Toronto they were ahead 3-2 after the first leg. But in both cases, they simply couldn’t hold on and they missed out on a chance to make history.
The heartbreak for fans Wednesday night was surely reminiscent of what they felt last spring — but just like Montreal’s run to the Champions League final is looked back on as something special, so too will be their playoff run this year. As the frustration and regret fades, the 2016 Impact team will be remembered for its pure counterattacking identity and how effective they were at wielding it, even in the face of difficult decisions like benching Drogba.
Fans will still probably wonder what could’ve been, but as far as the Impact got was pretty memorable, too.