MONTREAL - The Montreal Impact head into a match with the New York Red Bulls in a position to string together their first three-game winning streak of the season, and it's thanks largely to the finishing of striker Marco Di Vaio.
After Montreal blew an early two-goal lead against El Salvador's C.D. FAS on Wednesday, Di Vaio scored from the penalty spot in the 60th minute to send his team home with a six-point cushion atop their CONCACAF Champions League group — a group that incidentally contains the Red Bulls.
Last week in Major League Soccer action, Frank Klopas' men downed the Chicago Fire 1-0 at home on a late winner by Di Vaio — a victory that ended Montreal's seven-game losing skid in the league.
"We've won two games in a row, so we're happy," Di Vaio told reporters in El Salvador following Montreal's 3-2 win on Wednesday. "We're going to play against New York with confidence."
A win against the Red Bulls in New York on Saturday would allow the Impact to check off several firsts off their list. Montreal is the only team that has yet to register a road win this season. The club's last MLS win away from Saputo Stadium dates back to Sept. 8, 2013.
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What's more, the Impact have never beaten New York on the road in three tries in club history. And the team has not recorded back-to-back victories in MLS in exactly one year.
As a result, Montreal (4-14-5) is at the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference standings, where the team has dwelled since the beginning of April.
Assistant coach Mauro Biello, however, believes the tides are turning.
"Obviously, we've had a difficult season in the championship up until now," said Biello from Central America on Wednesday. "We're coming off a win against Chicago, and a big win in El Salvador. Hopefully we can continue to grow and get a few more."
Although the last-place Impact's post-season hopes are virtually dead and gone — the team is 11 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games remaining — Montreal could get a big boost from a New York scheduling conundrum.
The Red Bulls open their own Champions League campaign against FAS on Tuesday, three days after welcoming the Impact to Red Bull Arena. If manager Mike Petke decides to split his focus between MLS and the CCL, the Impact could face a slightly weaker Red Bulls lineup on Saturday.
"It's two completely different competitions," Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush told reporters after Wednesday's victory in San Salvador. "You saw it last year when we were chasing the playoffs. We had to balance our team a little bit differently in those games. (The Red Bulls) are in a position where they're still fighting for a playoff spot, and we'll see what kind of team they put on against us."
Petke will have a tough decision to make precisely because New York (6-7-10) is in the midst of a very tight playoff race. Currently fifth in the Eastern Conference with 28 points, the Red Bulls have four teams breathing down their necks. Philadelphia, New England, Chicago, and Houston are all within three points of New York's fifth and final playoff spot.
"Montreal is a huge game, not just because it's an MLS game, but because it's also a conference game," Petke told reporters over the phone on Tuesday. "Those are huge. Making the playoffs in MLS is extremely important, not only to me and the players, but to the organization.
"We're obviously taking Champions League very seriously. It's a very important and great platform for us. The scheduling part about it is not great, but you have to deal with that and you have to figure out what the best route to go is. If I had to put the two competitions next to each other, I wouldn't put one above the other."
On Saturday, Montreal will likely see at least some of Bradley Wright-Phillips on the pitch — whether as a starter or substitute remains to be seen. If the Impact hope to take points from the Red Bulls, they will need to contain the league's top-scorer, something few MLS clubs have done this year.
Wright-Phillips, who leads the league with 18 goals in 22 appearances, has scored against all Eastern Conference teams but two — D.C. United and the Impact. Wright-Phillips is one goal shy of tying the Red Bulls' club record for most goals in a season. The 29-year-old, brother of Queens Park Rangers winger Shaun Wright-Phillips, has scored two hat tricks this year.
New York's Wright-Phillips has scored more goals at home (11) than the entire Impact squad have scored on the road (8) this season.
The Red Bulls also have the league's best passer in Thierry Henry, whose 10 assists are one better than Los Angeles' Robbie Keane.
Because striker Jack McInerney has been left off the score sheet in his last seven matches, Montreal's offensive hopes will likely rest on Di Vaio, who has scored four of Montreal's last six goals.
On top of being an MLS conference clash, Saturday's game will act as a dress rehearsal for the final two games of Montreal's Champions League group stage. The Red Bulls will travel to Saputo Stadium on Sept. 17 before welcoming the Impact to New York on Oct. 22.
Notes: New York is coming off a bye week. … Troy Perkins will likely get the start in net for Montreal. … The Red Bulls lost their last time out, 1-0 versus the Fire on the road. … Henry, whose four and a half-year contract with the Red Bulls expires at the end of the season, may be heading towards retirement. … The Impact have not reached the Champions League quarter-finals since their inaugural 2008-09 CCL campaign.