Impact face daunting challenge to keep playoff hopes alive

The Canadian Press

10/5/2012 3:04:58 PM

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Impact insist there will be no scoreboard watching Saturday night as they try to keep their minuscule Major League Soccer playoff hopes alive.

That's because they'll be in Houston to face the Dynamo, who hold the fifth and final playoff spot in the MLS Eastern Conference.

Houston, which has yet to lose in 15 home games at BBVA Compass Stadium, has 49 points for a nine-point lead over seventh-place Montreal.

In order to avoid being eliminated from the playoff race, the Impact have to become the first team to beat the Dynamo in their new home.

"We're just trying to get a win on the field, and that's all that matters," Montreal forward Andrew Wenger said. "There's one goal. We can't tie, we can't lose, we know exactly what we have to do."

Even if the Impact win on Saturday, they could be eliminated Sunday if sixth-place Columbus beats division leaders Kansas City.

Montreal, Houston and Columbus, which has 48 points, all have three regular season games remaining.

Despite facing such bleak prospects of reaching the playoffs, Impact coach Jesse Marsch says there is plenty to motivate his squad when they take the field against the Dynamo, who are 10-0-5 at home.

"We understand that the chances are very slim but we want to do everything we can on our end at this point to keep ourselves alive and to put pressure on them, make it interesting," Marsch said.

"I think also the challenge that's on the table is going to a place where a team hasn't lost and that they've been very good at home. I think it's a challenge that we want to rise to the occasion and show that we've matured a lot this year and that something as big as this we can go there and now be successful.

"So the combination of those two things means that there's something to play for, for sure."

The two teams have split their season series. The Impact claimed a 4-2 win over Houston in their first meeting at Saputo Stadium on June 23. The Dynamo humbled Montreal 3-0 at home on July 21.

Those two results are typical of the Impact's first MLS campaign. Montreal currently boasts a seven-game unbeaten streak at home, including a scoreless draw in their last outing against Sporting KC, but the expansion Impact are 2-12-1 on the road.

Montreal held leads in each of its two previous road games in Columbus and Chicago but could not maintain them and ultimately lost both.

The only road result the Impact have enjoyed since a surprising 2-0 first road victory in Kansas City on May 5 was a 1-0 win at New England on Aug. 12.

And they'll be trying to end Houston's 23-game home unbeaten streak, the second-longest in MLS history.

"Every game is different," Montreal defender Matteo Ferrari said. "We played some good games, like New England. We won and they didn't score. Sometimes we didn't play well so for sure we have to keep more balanced."

Clearly, though, the Impact will be looking to create offence.

"I think we just need to be very strategic about how we push the game," Marsch said. "Any time now you're pushing to get a win and result and three points, you want to do it in a way where you don't leave yourself exposed. We've said for a while now that all these games at the end of the year come down to the last 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and that's proved to be the case in a lot of different results around the league."

Adding to the challenge, the Impact will be without defender Nelson Rivas and midfielder Collen Warner. The team announced Tuesday that Rivas had season-ending knee surgery. Warner will serve a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation.

Houston captain Brad Davis has a left calf strain and may not be able to play.

Look for Marsch to start Wenger and pair the rookie with striker Marco DiVaio up front in a 4-4-2 lineup.

"It's something that we're probably leaning towards doing," Marsch said. "So I think that on a smaller field and everything else with his strength and speed and athleticism that he can do well, and I think the partnership of him and Marco has moved itself along where now it's ready to see what it looks like."

Chosen first overall by Montreal in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, Wenger has scored four goals in 20 games. Three of his goals have come in his four starts this season, including his last on Aug. 4 in a 2-0 win over Philadelphia.

"It's going to be a tough game," Wenger said. "We're going to have to work hard defensively and get a lot of guys behind the ball, and it's going to be hot, as well, because we're not used to that, but I think we're up to the challenge."