MLS teams visit a variety of destinations in the buildup to a new season. Most clubs opt for a lengthy trip to Arizona or Florida. Others prefer to spend their time within driving distance of home. Some teams even voyage across the ocean to England, Ireland or Sweden to go through their paces.
Montréal looked at the calendar ahead and selected a different path. Impact coach Frank Klopas and his squad packed up and traveled to Mexico for an extended training camp ahead of the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Pachuca on Tuesday night (10:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer 2Go).
The two-and-a-half week sojourn involved a lengthy spell in greater Mexico City to acclimate to the altitude and implement the tactical underpinnings required to cope with their Liga MX opposition. Montréal played three friendlies against local sides and used facilities provided by Cruz Azul to go through their paces before the excursion to Pachuca on Sunday.
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Even with those careful preparations, the possible return of the influential Ignacio Piatti and the presence of seasoned figures like Laurent Ciman, Marco Donadel and Nigel Reo-Coker now in the squad, the Impact face a monumental challenge to procure a decent result ahead of the second leg at Olympic Stadium next Tuesday.
It is difficult enough for MLS sides to procure results in Mexico in the best of circumstances. This predicament — the first game of a new season against an in-season opponent at a venue located approximately 8,000 feet above sea level — falls well short of the ideal.
The margin for error is perilously thin for a revamped side yet to play together against top competition. This exercise highlights the difficult curve for MLS sides at this stage of the tournament and reinforces the need to manage the match adroitly in order to survive it.
“We have to play smart,” Klopas said in a statement. “They are seven games in their season while we will be playing our first match. Tactically, we have to be good with the ball, use our strengths and take away their strengths. We know we are going to make mistakes and we will be under pressure, but we have to stick together as a team. If we stay compact and organized, we will be fine.”
Those directives make sense on paper against an opponent hoping to include returning top scorer Ariel Nahuelpán (head) in the starting XI, but they remain particularly difficult to implement under the duress of the situation. Montréal is likely to spend much of the night chasing against a Pachuca side accustomed to dictating the terms in possession and moving swiftly through midfield. The exacting work leaves the Impact prone to potentially crippling mistakes against a side increasingly capable of taking advantage of them.
Pachuca strung together consecutive victories for the first time since October with a 2-1 victory over Club León on Saturday. The triumph extended the former Champions League winners’ unbeaten run to three matches just in time for them to embark upon their continental duties.
“It was very important to get the win to grab a winning streak,” Pachuca midfielder Erick Gutierrez told the club’s official website “Now we have to think about (the Impact). The game already happened. You have to keep working.”
It is a directive the Impact must take to heart in order to emerge from this excursion to Mexico fully intact. This is the first step in a long season for a team with ambitions on the continental stage and duties ahead on the league front. The preseason toil ends abruptly here. It is now time to see whether the Impact can put those efforts to good use to claim a foothold in the tie ahead of the return leg next week.