How the Montreal Impact topped the East’s best team, the New York Red Bulls

Eric Bolte/Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

How do you stop the best team in the Eastern Conference of MLS? Just ask the Montreal Impact.

They topped the No. 1 New York Red Bulls on Sunday in the first leg of the conference semifinals and it's not because the Impact are a better team player-for-player – they aren’t.

The Impact's 1-0 upset win came down to a game plan that neutralized playmaker Sacha Kljestan, which in turn prevented striker Bradley Wright-Phillips from doing what he does best. Add in a dash of spectacular goalkeeping from Evan Bush, and you have the blueprint for toppling the Eastern Conference MLS Cup favorites who hadn't lost in 20 matches.

The Red Bulls were the obvious favorites despite the contest being in Montreal. The Impact had to go through the midweek play-in round and were playing their third game in eight days. The Montreal roster is also one of the oldest in MLS, which isn't ideal for a quick turnaround. And, well, the Red Bulls are just the better team. Kljestan is one of the best playmakers in the league, with the most assists, and Wright-Phillips has been this year's best finisher.

But Montreal coach Mauro Biello knew that if Kljestan can't get the ball to Golden Boot-winner Wright-Phillips, then New York will have trouble scoring. So every time Kljestan got the ball, Montreal threw numbers at him. Midfielders Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello pushed him into areas where he couldn't slip Wright-Phillips those deadly through-balls in front of goal.

The Red Bulls didn't seem to know how to respond. They didn't use the width of the field and kept trying to move the ball centrally, which the Impact just wouldn't allow. With Wright-Phillips unable to get close to goal often enough, it made for a pretty manageable shift for centerbacks Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera.

The Red Bulls did start out well enough. For the first quarter of the match, they pressed high and forced a high tempo that allowed Wright-Phillips to make some runs into the box. But as the afternoon stretched on, the Red Bulls dropped off and that's when the Impact had their way.

The Impact attack worked just as it did when they thumped D.C. United on Thursday – they let their midfield trio disrupt the other side while their attacking line of Ignacio Piatti, Matteo Mancosu and Dominic Oduro acted as a three-man battering ram on the counter.

Of course, even with everything the Impact did right, there was still one final ingredient to finish the job: A few monster saves from goalkeeper Evan Bush. The Red Bulls may have not had a ton of great chances, but they had enough to win and Bush made three key saves on the day.

His biggest may have been this one that blocked a chip when Wright-Phillips got behind the Impact defense just three minutes in:

He would return again in stoppage time for another big save to preserve his side's lead:

Amazingly, Wright-Phillips missed his strike off the rebound, which Bush can't take credit for. But Wright-Phillips, who has been dominant all year and frankly isn't used to losing, may have felt under pressure from the Impact's successful performance on the day.

In the end, the Impact knew exactly what to do against the Red Bulls and everything fell their way. Whether they can go for a repeat and get past the Red Bulls in the second leg of the conference semifinals is now the toughest question Biello faces. The Red Bulls have gone 13-2-2 at home this year, a dominant record, and the Impact will again need to do everything right.

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