With a spot in the MLS Cup on the line, the Montreal Impact wasted no time on Tuesday letting Toronto FC know what they are all about: Full throttle counterattacks and blistering speed. For about 67 minutes, it seemed like it would be enough for the Impact to run away with a cushy 3-0 first leg finish, until lackadaisical defending pulled the final result to 3-2.
Toronto's late surge sets up an interesting return leg scenario in Toronto next week, especially if away goals decide the winner of an aggregate tie. But if there's a lesson for Montreal in Tuesday's close finish, it's that they should trust their identity and commit to it for a full 90 minutes.
Montreal proved early just how potential their counterattack can be, catching TFC off-guard with just how aggressive they were in the early going and punishing the visitors twice in the first 12 minutes. And they managed to do it even though Toronto should've known exactly what was coming.
The way Montreal got as far as they did in this playoffs was a pretty simple formula: They've sat back, bided their time, and then sprung on the counter.
Toronto FC looked something they haven't looked throughout the 2016 playoffs so far: stunned.
Toronto's 3-5-2 formation allowed them to press high and crowd the midfield, which is how they've barged their way through the playoffs to this point. But where it leaves them vulnerable is on the flanks – they can be out-numbered there and unable to track runners getting into space. Montreal's combination play was able to pull their wingbacks out of shape enough to create the opportunities they needed.
How it played out was especially apparently on Montreal second goal. Steven Beitashour got caught between two minds of whether he should step up to shut down Dominic Oduro or track Ignancio Piatti. His delay in tracking Piatti meant the Argentine had plenty of space to work with after collecting Oduro's pass, and his cross to an on-running Matteo Mancosu sealed the deal.
But Montreal looked comfortable with their 3-0 lead and didn't respond effectively enough to Toronto shifting their midfield to give Michael Bradley some support. They brought Didier Drogba on the pitch to chase, and stopped doing what they did early that worked so well. All of a sudden, they got slow and plodding.
It's fair to say there's been nothing revolutionary about the Impact's counterattacking approach, but it was one that took Montreal some time to rediscover after they had tried so hard to accommodate Drogba being on the field. Drogba, for all his talent, didn’t have it in him to defend from the front or the pace to counterattack.
Enter Mancosu, who now has four goals in the playoffs alone, and completes a three-man battering ram on the counterback alongside Piatti and Oduro. In support in the midfield triangle of Patrice Bernier, Marco Donadel and Hernan Bernardello, who did so well to shut down Toronto's Michael Bradley, win the ball back, and spring the forwards with through balls.
Montreal can go on the road and do what they did in the first half to Toronto on Tuesday. In fact, it's especially important they do it when on the road. But they need to commit to it for a full 90 minutes, no matter the scoreline.