From the moment Montréal winger Johan Venegas claimed possession near midfield, he knew what he planned to do. Didier Drogba made his run and presented the possibility of a simple tap-in to decide the game, but Venegas never planned to use him. Venegas justified his conviction thumping inside the far post to give the Impact a 2-1 victory over Columbus Crew SC at Stade Saputo on Sunday.
Venegas’ winner capped an entertaining first leg in this Eastern Conference semifinal tie. Columbus operated in possession for most of the first half and took the lead through Federico Higuain just after the half-hour. Montréal captain Patrice Bernier responded with his header eight minutes before halftime to restore parity.
Columbus dictated the terms in the early stages with its expansive intent and its superiority in possession. Those measures allowed Crew SC to push Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis into advanced areas and tempt the Impact to abandon their resolute shape. The resulting balance ensured an open, entertaining period with both teams committing numbers into the attack.
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Drogba proved a constant presence for the Impact up front. His robust center forward play created opportunities for others and unsettled the Crew SC defense. A typically determined run nearly produced the opener inside the opening quarter of an hour. Drogba muscled through and poked past Steve Clark, but he handled a deflection into the net and saw the potential opener ruled out.
It marked the high point for the Impact in the opening half-hour with Crew SC establishing the cadence on the ball without really bringing Ethan Finlay or Kei Kamara into the game. Columbus eventually benefited from its work in possession nevertheless to procure the opener after 33 minutes.
Justin Meram created the initial danger with a threatening cross from the left. Drogba rose highest to clear it, but he turned his header back across the face of goal instead of away from danger. Higuain pounced without an Impact player in sight and secured a precious goal for Crew SC after 33 minutes.
Columbus’ opener provoked an immediate response from the Impact as halftime approach. It took just four minutes for the home side to restore parity from a set piece with the aid of some lax Crew SC defending.
Piatti swung a tempting ball toward the near post and watched the Crew SC markers stick rigidly to their zonal assignments. Bernier navigated through the static defense and nodded home his second goal in four days to restore parity eight minutes before halftime.
The back and forth in the first half tempered the ambitions of both sides after the break. The tempo dropped considerably with more emphasis exerted on frustrating the opposition and retaining the proper shape. It led to half-chances and prompted plenty of possession in the middle third until Crew SC presented the Impact with the second goal after 73 minutes.
All of the trouble for Crew SC started when Parkhurst dithered in possession and tried to win a foul when Venegas closed him down. Venegas claimed the ball without fouling and started a two-versus-one break with Crew SC hopelessly exposed. Drogba loomed as the easy choice for the simple finish, but Venegas instead retained the ball and slotted inside the far post to give Montréal the lead.
Montréal spent the final quarter of an hour choking off service to the isolated Kamara and preventing Crew SC from conjuring much in the final third. The determined work protected the Impact’s narrow advantage and sent Crew SC back to Ohio with a deficit to overturn in the second leg in Columbus next Sunday.