Ignacio Piatti Key to Montreal's Success in Eastern Conference Final 2nd Leg

Joe TanseyFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2016

Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti (10) reacts after scoring his first of two goals against the New York Red Bulls in the second half during an MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal soccer match at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. The Impact defeated the Red Bulls 2-1 advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
RICH SCHULTZ/Associated Press

BMO Field will be littered with superstars on Wednesday night, as Toronto FC host Montreal Impact in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Final. 

While the focus may immediately shift toward one of Toronto's three high-profile designated players, the most important player on the pitch will be wearing an Impact kit. 

Argentinian midfielder Ignacio Piatti has been arguably the best player in the league this season—and one of the most underappreciated stars at the same time. 

The 31-year-old's name may not stick out on paper right away like the other stars across the league, but he's been more important to his squad than Toronto's trio, David Villa at New York City FC, Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls and any of the LA Galaxy's big names.

What sets Piatti apart from everyone else on the pitch is his work rate off the ball. Toronto boss Greg Vanney noted that before the first leg, which Montreal won 3-2 at Olympic Stadium.

"In my opinion, one of his greatest strengths is what people sometimes don’t see what he does before he actually gets the ball," Vanney said. "He’s a guy who’s clever in the moments when he’s helping his team defend and sees that the team is about to win the ball, and then he’s quickly transitioning in attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning.

"He’s fragments of time ahead of everyone else, and that’s where he gets his separation from defenders and then what we all see is his ability one-on-one and to score." 

Piatti had some type of influence on all three of the goals the Impact scored in the opening leg of the series. 

He wasn't directly involved in Dominic Oduro's opener, but his presence in midfield attracted two Toronto players near him. With Michael Bradley shading in the direction of Piatti, Patrice Bernier moved into space just past the halfway line to retrieve the ball to pick out Oduro. 

In the buildup to the second Impact goal in the 12th minute, Piatti picked out a gap in the Toronto defense on the left wing with a run that caught Steven Beitashour off guard. Before the ball was even directed toward Piatti, he was making a measured run that kept him on onside. What followed was a first-touch pass into the center of the box that Matteo Mancosu finished. 

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 22:  Ignacio Piatti #10 of the Montreal Impact defends the ball against Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during leg one of the MLS Eastern Conference finals at Olympic Stadium on November 22, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Although it may not seem like much, Piatti's run from the center of the pitch to the left wing in the 53rd minute occupied a defender and allowed Ambroise Oyongo to blaze into open space before firing Montreal's third into the back of the net. 

However, Piatti's influence on the match was lost right after Toronto entered Will Johnson into the fray to lock up the acres of space the Reds left open in the opening 55 minutes. 

The challenge for the owner of 17 goals and six assists in the regular season is to break down a Toronto midfield unit led by Michael Bradley and Johnson to earn a vital away goal in the rivalry showdown. 

"For us, it’s about being ready for what Toronto could give us," Montreal head coach Mauro Biello said on Monday. "At the same time, preparing the team so we can unbalance them. In the end, the message to my team is obviously when we don’t have the ball to limit their space and time. When we’re on the ball, it’s about believing that we can score." 

On the line is the first-ever Canadian berth in the MLS Cup final and a chance to gain the upper hand in a growing rivalry north of the border. 

“This is a very important game for us," Piatti said through a translator. "It’s a final and a chance to make history. This is the first opportunity for us to get that far and we are very much ready." 

The Impact enter the second leg with one win at BMO Field in the regular season, a 1-0 victory on August 27 in which Piatti scored the lone tally for the 10-man Impact. 

Piatti's anticipation and knack for the ball were displayed on that strike, as he made a surging run into the final third the second Evan Bush's goal-kick landed just past the midfield line. The run caught Toronto rookie Tsubasa Endoh chasing behind the Argentinian, and it allowed him to pick up the ball without a challenge. 

By the time Piatti was surrounded by two defenders, he already had enough time to plot where he was going to send his shot. It's little things like that that will make a massive difference in Wednesday's match. 

All it takes for Piatti to shine is one moment in which he gains a small advantage over a defender, which is why Vanney considers him as dangerous off the ball as he is in possession. 

“We don’t underestimate (Piatti)," Vanney said. "We know his value to the team and his ability to create and to finish. He’s one of their players that we have to keep an eye on and know where he is at all times." 

Steven Senne/Associated Press

If Toronto starts Johnson with Bradley and possibly Jonathan Osorio in central midfield, many would assume that Piatti would struggle due to the presence of an extra defensive-minded player. However, Toronto's potential control of the game through possession could play into Montreal's strengths. 

The Impact have no problem sitting back and waiting for the right time to strike on the counter. Montreal delivered the knockout blow to the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semi-final with this approach, as Oduro and Didier Drogba set up Piatti as the Red Bulls defense scurried back to get into position in the box. 

Montreal can employ this strategy for most of the second leg because Toronto are the team in need of a goal. The Impact would have no problem defending for the first 45 minutes and causing frustration in the Toronto attack. 

If the home side are unable to score in the opening stanza, a bit of desperation could seep into the Reds, which would lead to more space on the opposite end of the pitch. A quick, Piatti-led counter is all the Impact need to strike for an away goal and potentially a berth in the MLS Cup final on December 10. 

Regardless of if he's creating space for teammates with his runs, leading the attack himself or tracking back as an extra man in defense, Piatti will have a massive impact on the contest. 

If this season is any indication of what we'll see on Wednesday, the Argentinian will be a key factor in at least one of those facets of the match. 

     

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @JTansey90

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.