The good news about facing a club like Liga Deportiva Alajuelense is that it will certainly solve Joey Saputo's concerns about buzz. As of Friday March 6th, not three hours after tickets originally went on sale, more than 10,000 had been sold. By time of writing, the Impact had tweeted that more than 25,000 tickets had been sold. Noel Butler of TSN 690 is predicting in excess of 50,000 will be at Stade Saputo.
I'm not certain, but that has to be a club record in the MLS era. This event might just be a sell-out. It's now up to coach Frank Klopas, and les bleus to give us a good show, and maybe stop a Costa Rican giant in its tracks.
I won't lie, initial prognoses is that we're heavily outmatched, outclassed and outgunned. This team is good, and they're looking to put Costa Rica on the map as a CONCACAF superpower. They performed extremely well in the World Cup last summer, are ranked 13th right now in the FIFA standings, and with two teams remaining in the Champion's League semi-finals, are likely to send at least one team to the finals. Both Costa Rican teams that qualified for Champion's League are in the final four - a 100% success rate. Can the Impact halt the advance of a rising soccer superpower?
Where can I watch?
TVA Sports will carry the match (en français) while Sportsnet will carry the match in English. Probably every sports bar within 100km of Mont Royal will probably be showing the match as well.
What's on the line?
Immortal glory, or souring our best performance as a club since 2009 early in the MLS season. If Montréal win this game, regardless of how they perform in Costa Rica, they will be sending a message that this team has turned a new leaf, and is ready to perform at the highest levels of international soccer. A victory here would generate a lot of buzz in soccer communities all over Québec and North America for this team, and send us on a path to challenge for the title of best club on the continent. If that doesn't sound like incentive, I don't know what will motivate our players. However, if we lose, it will sap a lot of our momentum early in the season. It could also poison our recently returned fan support who are coming out knowing that Montréal can put a winning side on the pitch. This match will dictate our tempo in the coming weeks.
Alajuelense are a great team. This line-up is highly effective, speedy and prone to long bouts of possession. They use possession to grind a team down, and their excellent midfielders can change their point of attack with the flick of the ball. They always seem to have players in the right place at the right time. They're strong in transition, more so than any team in MLS, and can capitalize on open space like no other.
Their line-up in Champion's League against D.C. United was excellent, and they knew they were facing the team that won the MLS Eastern Conference last year. They fielded a cohesive unit to that effect. But their line-up is going to have to change. In the Primera División of Costa Rica, Alajuelense have won only a single match since February 11th. Since then, they have lost two, and drawn four. Fans at home are eager to set a CONCACAF record, but are also eager for a result in domestic competition. The coach might prioritize their domestic responsibility over Champion's League. That decision will certainly change the outcome of the line-up, especially since the match Wednesday night will be their 4th in two weeks.
All that being said, I'm expecting them to both underestimate the Impact's defence, and still field a top-flight squad. While their talented starters will be in the line-up, expect some heavy legs. My prediction on their line-up is as follows:
Keeper: D. Lewis
Defense: L. Peralta, P. López, K. Gutiérrez, J. Acosta
Midfield: J. Venegas, A. Alonso, O. Rodríguez, E. Rodríguez
Forward: J. McDonald, J. Ortiz
A dangerous line-up if there is one. The pairing of P. López and K. Gutiérrez in central defence is excellent against tandem attackers, like D.C. United - but might be vulnerable against crosses from the wings to a speedy lone striker. We'll have to wait and see. Who knows, maybe we'll get lucky and they won't bring a major player and choose to focus on the Premier League back home.
Keys to Victory:
In their last Champion's League games, Alajuelense dominated possession and quite literally mopped the floor with D.C. United. Even when Alajuelense lost in game 2, it was due more to carelessness and a comfortable goal advantage rather than any amazing plays by their MLS opposition. However, both away goals for D.C. United came on the counter attack, after long bouts of possession from the Costa Ricans. If Montréal can quickly transition on the counter attack, we can put a few goals away.
I'd wager our back line is easily as strong as D.C. United, and our central midfield is absolutely more capable. A strong counter game is what Montréal will need to win this, without parking the bus right on the defensive line. Our central midfield will need to be in top-shape and mentally prepared for the toughest game of the season.
Secondly, several goals have been scored against Alajuelense along the wings after an opportunity in the box. While they are a team that is strong in central defense, both Peralta and Acosta have been known to drift too far into the attacking third when Alajuelense is applying pressure on the attck, and have been forced to back-track into their own defense. If our wingers can beat them to a 50/50 ball and run along the wing, we can create a great scoring opportunity off a cross into the box.
Oduro, Duka and Piatti all excel in this situations, and placing Oduro into a right-winger role might put him into a position where his speed and one-touch ability can be put to excellent use. With Mapp injured, he might just get the change.
Probable Starting XI:
Keeper: Evan Bush
Defenders: Hassoun Camarra, Laurent Ciman, Bakary Soumare, Maxim Tissot
Midfield (D): Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier
Midfield (A): Dominic Oduro, Ignacio Piatti, Dilly Duka
Forward: Jack McInerney
Nigel Reo-Coker has consistently under-performed during his tenure with the Impact. He needs to step up his game, improve his possession and passing, and learn where our players are going to be. Cohesion is critical with this team, and Reo-Coker is a weak link. Bernier and Donadel would be my pairing to start this match. Additionally, with both Justin Mapp injured and Andrès Romero mending from a pre-season injury, Frank Klopas might force Dominic Oduro into the right wing position to generate a speedy attacking option on the flank. He has performed well in this position before, notably with the Columbus Crew in 2013.
I think Maxim Tissot and Hassoun Camarra will start at the ends of the defensive line-up over Victor Cabrera and Donny Toia. Cabrera survived trial by fire agaisnt Pachuca, but is clearly a natural centre-back. His lack of confidence on several Pachuca attacks along the flank showed, and Hassoun Camarra is a more well rounded defender in that position. Donny Toia is an excellent left-back, but his skill level is simply not what we need to hold off the Costa Rican tide. I'd give this start to Maxim Tissot honestly. He has shown over two MLS seasons that he can play at this level, including 3 Champion's League matches in 2014 and 2 qualification matches. He's earned this, and it's time we give him the chance to show Montréal that he is a capable player.
Jack Mac will start over Cameron Porter, because he's going to be used as a substitute. He brings magic onto the pitch every time he comes on, and starting him might dim that morale boost he brings.
This is a David and Goliath match-up, but D.C. United showed CONCACAF that beating these guys is possible on home turf. I'm an optimist (or blinded by fandom), but I think if we spend our bye week training for this single match and working on our defense and central midfield, we can earn a favorable result.
I think if Piatti gets his spark back, or Andrès Romero is healthy, we can show the world that we're not the side that fell to D.C. United last week. So with those three major asterisks, I'll say a 3-2 Impact victory.