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Noel Butler

Analyst, TSN Radio 690 Montreal

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Going into the All-Star break in July with games in hand over all teams above a then-fourth place Impact, there was the real possibility Mauro Biello’s team could win those games in hand and that the Impact would find themselves atop the Eastern Conference.

However, the Impact has suffered through a severe dip in form since the All-Star game, only managing to win twice over a span of nine games. Most alarming has been their home form, where the Impact has lost three matches and their opponents outscoring them by a wide margin. By the same token, they only recorded a solitary victory at Stade Saputo which came all the way back on August 6.

Collecting only nine points of the twenty-seven on offer, the Impact now find themselves among a cluster of clubs fighting for playoff spots with just five games to play. They do, though, have some breathing space. They are four points up on DC United, who currently occupy the seventh spot in the Conference.

With a number of highly questionable performances over this close to two month timeframe, which has bought with it deeper uncertainties and a lowering of confidence, each match to the end of the season (beginning Saturday evening at Red Bull Arena) will feel like a Cup Final psychologically to the Impact players.

They won’t just be playing against the current Eastern Conference champions; they will be battling against themselves. Every errant pass, every mistimed tackle will be amplified. The Impact will be looking for favourable decisions at every blow of the referee’s whistle.

For last Saturday’s key match at home against the Revolution, the headline from the Impact’s press release spoke of ‘Three Precious’ points. With Jay Heap’s club five points adrift of the Impact and just outside of a playoff spot going into the crucial encounter, it was a six pointer.  

Impact players were fully aware a first win at home since early August and they would have opened up an eight point gap against one of the key teams fighting for its playoff life, and if other results went in their favour it would put a far healthier gap between them and all other clubs scrambling for a playoff berth.

Once again, though, the home team failed to even come close to meeting expectations. Conceding the opener from the Impact-busting Kei Kamara before many of the sold out crowd had even reached their seats, the Rev’s were up 2-0 before the half hour mark and went on to record the crucial1-3 win on the road which put them in a playoff position - only two points off the Impact.

Post-match, Biello spoke to the very brittle fabric his team are currently made from.

“It keeps going, especially at home. We can see the fragility of the team here,” said Biello. “Obviously, getting scored on after only 30 seconds is not normal. It starts to play in your head and then a cross comes in the box. We did not execute defensively and we did not mark properly. Kamara jumps and scores.”

Chasing matches since the All-Star game has been a constant, clawing their way back into the contest like they most famously did in Columbus in early May is not. Down and supposedly out of it by a wide margin 4-1 early in the second half, the Impact’s inner resolve surfaced. Three straight unanswered goals with Oduro equalizing in added time, like he had done in late April at Yankee Stadium, and the Impact had secured the most unlikeliest of points on the road.   

However, instead of that extraordinary comeback galvanizing the team as they took on the Union in front of yet another sold out Stade Saputo crowd just a week later, the Impact could only manage the 1-1 tie. Blake may have been in magnificent form in the Union goal but the fact of the matter is the Impact failed to build off their second half performance in Columbus.

The most glaring example of losing momentum came on the heels of the Impact’s very first MLS win in Toronto in late August. Without exception the most spirited victory of the season, the team pulling off the highly improbable after the highly controversial red card to Mallace on the stroke of halftime.

You just had to look at the unbridled joy and euphoria in the faces of the players and the coaching staff at the final whistle to know exactly what that victory and the most valuable three points of the season meant to each and every one of them. 

With the win the Impact pulled themselves within six points from top spot in the East. The upcoming International break would allow for additional recuperation time for many weary legs before Orlando SC were due into Stade Saputo ten days later.

You know the rest. Led by Kaká at his imperious best and hitting the back of the net twice, the Impact were once more sorry losers at home; this time by the embarrassingly wide margin of 1-4. The only thing in common with their BMO Field performance is that yet again the Impact had a player sent off. Ill-discipline was a hallmark of the Klopas era, Biello has come a long way in his year at the helm instilling the far better and beneficial team ethic.

In football so many red cards are avoidable simply by having far better control of your emotions. Not allowing negative unrelated aspects creep into your thinking and decision making. There’s a good reason the league refers to their body for reviewing the likes of contentious red cards as the Disciplinary Committee.

It’s difficult enough having to chase games, the Impact players owe it to the club - their supporters - to put in measure and disciplined performances week in and week out. MLS is a league, just like so very many in world football, where peculiar decisions from the officials occur each and every weekend. Aware of these facts, caution needs to be at the top of a player’s thinking.

As does taking full responsibility. I don’t quite get, nor understand, why Hassoun Camara would state after training Wednesday that last Saturday’s latest letdown was a ‘learning experience’. Learning is what you’re supposed to do during training camp, not after a late season demoralizing defeat at home against a team you are directly competing against for a valuable playoff berth.

As much as university students believe tuitions fees are too steep, then by the same token allowing your opponent to quite literally steal an easy three points on the road, is way too high a price to pay for gifting the Revs three points.        

At least club captain Patrice Bernier spoke in a far more positive way when discussing the vital final five matches of the regular season. Not for Bernier to just qualify for the playoffs but to do so on the back of good performances and results, and how it was to have momentum on your side come October 23.

Between now and then, though, the Impact need to immediately discover their early season selves where they set the pace in the East. Regardless of opponent, there are no easy games. The Impact only have two home dates remaining, the last of which on October 16 - the penultimate match of the season - sounds rather ominous right now for the Impact.

It is when the current Eastern Conference leaders, Toronto FC, pay a final visit of the season to la belle ville. No one from either team will need reminding what happened last October, nor in their playoff encounter some five days later at Stade Saputo.  Toronto FC may well be in position by then to not only lock up the first seed and their very first Conference championship, a victory against the Impact may well put a rather large dent or even doom the Impact’s 2016 playoff aspirations.

What we certainly do know now is that the Impact conclude their season a week later at Foxboro. With everything possibly on the line, it would be the perfect time for Drogba to take a leaf out of Thierry Henry’s book.

Back in the 2014 playoffs and a second leg of the Eastern Conference upcoming at Foxboro, having lost the home leg at Red Bull Arena, Henry finally played an MLS match on a non-natural surface. It would ultimately signify Henry’s very last match before he announced his retirement a few days later.

Surely Drogba will not want his stellar career to come to a shuddering halt on the back of not even making the 2016 playoffs. I can think of 20,801 others who won’t want it to end that way either.

The Impact will look to snap the Red Bulls' 12-game unbeaten streak and move closer to securing a playoff berth when the two teams clash Saturday night. Listen to the game live on TSN Radio 690 at 7pm et.