Ignacio Piatti, Montreal vs. Orlando, 6.23.18
Photo by Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | Do not give into the persistent underrating of the Montreal Impact

The last time the Montréal Impact were in Portland, they drew. The time before that, they won. Thus constitutes the entire Major League Soccer history of the Impact at Providence Park, something Portland Timbers fans may remember as Saturday’s return visit approaches (8pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS).

Although they have gone on some memorable runs in MLS’ playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League, Montréal has rarely seemed an item of concern in the thoughts of Timbers Army members. Yet in two visits to Portland in league play, the Impact has never lost. Something, each time, has kept the Timbers from getting over the hump.

In 2013, it was Hassoun Camara and Felipe giving the Impact control on the hour as Marco Schällibaum’s team embarked on a surprisingly successful Cascadia tour. Three years later, it was Ignacio Piatti canceling out, just before halftime, a Jack McInerney opener, fomenting Montreal’s 1-1 draw.

The point here is that Montréal has never carried Atlanta United’s, New York City FC’s or (to go back a few years) the LA Galaxy’s reputation into Providence Park. They’ve never even been seen at Sporting Kansas City’s level – a consistently strong team, albeit one that Timbers fans have perhaps never quite seen as one of Major League Soccer’s elites. Yet, the results the Impact have gotten from their visits have been just as good, if not better.

This year’s team profiles in much the same way. It’s still led by Piatti, whose 10 goals and eight assists in 19 games give the Impact an MVP-caliber player. The additions of Saphir Taider (formerly of Inter Milan) and Samuel Piette in central midfield have offered the team a new spine, one with the Impact’s typical, European-imported flavor, while players like Alejandro Silva (six assists) and Jeisson Vargas (four goals) are doing their parts to augment Piatti’s production.

To be sure, though, Montréal's is a star-driven machine; one star, in fact. Playing for a team that often finds itself out of the MLS limelight, Piatti is the league’s most underappreciated talent, one whose danger on the counter attack might be unmatched across the league. The 57 goals he’s put up in his 111 regular-season appearances are made all the more impressive for never having a true, consistent, creative presence in the middle of the field.

The 10 assists the departed Blerim Dzemaili produced last year marked the only time during one of Piatti’s full seasons that a teammate had recorded more than six helpers, and although Dzemaili can play attacking midfield, he does not project as a prototype high-volume creator. Instead of having a Federico Higuain, Mauro Diaz or Javier Morales-esque complement in the middle of the park, Piatti has typically had players like Felipe, Patrice Bernier or Marco Donadel providing foundations off which he can build.

That’s not to say the Impact haven’t had talented players. It wasn’t too long ago Didier Drogba was finishing his first-division career at Stade Saputo. Before that, Marco Di Vaio was calling Québec home. But Montréal's relative isolation, as well as the lack of a true creative partner, have often left Piatti playing as a distant, solo show. If he were part of the league’s more ballyhooed teams, Piatti would be one of the biggest stars in Major League Soccer.

All of which creates a type of paradox, although not an uncommon one when underhyped teams come to Providence Park. The lack of attention afforded some clubs leave them arriving with a type of “lesser” feel, and sometimes, they are. Not every team can be an NYCFC or Sporting. But Montréal is in a playoff spot, as of now. Their defense has stabilized after a truly disastrous start. With six shutouts in their last nine games (and seven wins during that time), Montréal is quietly one of the hottest teams in Major League Soccer.

Add in the Piatti factor, and the Impact might not be the ideal team you’d want to face coming off your first loss in three months. At the same time, this is the type of game the Portland Timbers should be winning at home; or, at least, they should be able to put in a good performance. The dangers are clear, as are the challenges, and in terms of what the Timbers have to offer, there’s no reason the team can’t go out and get the result it wants.

But Portland perhaps felt the same way about the Impact in the past, too, and just as it’s easy to go most of a preview without mentioning that the Impact might be one of the hottest teams in MLS, so might it be easy to see the team name, give into first impressions, and not remember that this, at Providence Park, has traditionally been a very tough opponent.