Wilfred Nancy and CF Montreal find themselves in uncharted territory.
For the first time since 2016, a Major League Soccer team is making real playoff moves and picking itself to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Montreal has won six of its last seven games — including a 2-0 decision over Orlando City in last Sunday’s playoff opener — and is playing some of its best soccer of the season on both sides of the ball.
On Sunday, the club hosts New York City FC, the defending MLS Cup champions, in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This is the moment the club has been preparing for since Nancy took over as head coach in 2021.
“The bigger the challenge the more I like it because it allows me to push the limits of my players,” Nancy said.
Most of the core group have been together in Nancy’s nearly two years at the agency and are familiar with this type of mentality. There will also be added motivation for revenge when NYCFC hand Montreal a rare road loss in a 4-1 drubbing at Yankee Stadium on March 12.
With five straight wins, including a dominant 3-0 demolition of Inter Miami in the first round, New York will be Montreal’s toughest test in weeks.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game and we have to be careful, but we can’t let doubt affect our confidence,” captain Samuel Payet said. “I was watching the game and New York was definitely the better team, so it’s no surprise that we played them.”
New York appears to have fully recovered from the midseason woes that saw the club drop out of contention for first place in the Eastern Conference.
After the departure of star forward Valentin Castellanos, who signed with La Liga side Girona in July, the team struggled for a long time before some real sailing in September and making the playoffs. Don’t stand close.
The two clubs last met on July 30 when they played out a 0-0 draw at Saputo Stadium.
“We’re two teams that are in different places right now. They’re in great heat coming into this game and finding their stride,” Canadian right-back Alastair Johnston said. “When you take that away [Castellanos] It took a few weeks to figure out what it was like to be there without him and now they are in a better place.
In addition, the crowd of Stade Saputo, the home field advantage will manifest itself in another important way – the pitch. NYCFC plays in the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, the smallest pitch in MLS, while Stade Saputo boasts the largest arena in the league, something that should benefit Nancy’s possession-heavy style.
“They’re still a very good team with the ball and in possession like us so it’s going to be tough,” Payet said. “It can go either way, especially when both teams are so familiar but the atmosphere, especially if it’s like the last game, is key.”