The New York Red Bulls began this game with four starters unavailable - Tim Cahill, Richard Eckersley, Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave - plus one on the bench. Dax McCarty was left out of the starting XI for perhaps no better reason than Mike Petke was looking around the dressing room for a redhead to drop from the team, and Eckersley didn't make the plane to Montreal.
McCarty has not had a stellar start to the season, but neither has any Red Bull not named Luis Robles. The decision to leave RBNY's stalwart defensive midfielder out of the lineup was gutsy, and appeared thoroughly wrong-headed when Montreal carved through New York's defense to score in the 5th minute.
It was the last time this game met expectations. In the 12th minute, L'Impact broke through again: this time courtesy of a ball over the top to Marco Di Vaio, who drew both Kosuke Kimura and Robles toward him to snuff out his shot. The rebound fell kindly to Andres Romero, scorer of the first goal, who volleyed into the empty net - almost. Ibrahim Sekagya is a man with a great many qualities as a footballer but agility has not appeared to be among them in his stint with RBNY. Nonetheless, it was Sekagya who stretched a leg out to hook Romero's shot off the line.
It seemed unlikely to matter in the long run. New York's defense had been broken once already, and would doubtless buckle again under the pressure Montreal was bringing with every possession. The occasional counter-attack did not appear likely to challenge even the Impact's shaky back line.
In the 30th minute, when Kimura punted a pass down the line for Lloyd Sam to chase, the impotence of RBNY's attack was well illustrated. Sam beat former Red Bull Heath Pearce in the race to the ball, but arrived at the edge of the area with no teammates waiting for him.
Four Impact players and a late-arriving Bradley Wright-Phillips looked to be the sum of Sam's options. But he spotted what the entire Montreal defense had missed: Jonny Steele charging to the far post. Even this option defied conventional wisdom. Steele isn't the quickest man in MLS, and his marker was comfortably ahead of him in the race to goal - in keeping with all the tenets of good defending.
Furthermore, Sam might have had the right idea (lob the entire Montreal back line and land the ball on Steele's foot at the back post) but his execution was interrupted by the Olympic Stadium's turf. The RBNY winger slipped as he crossed the ball - and the sudden loss of balance was exactly what his pass needed: it curled perfectly round Eric Miller and collided with Steele. 1-1.
There was no time to dwell on the surprise equalizer, because RBNY followed it with a surprise go-ahead goal. In the 34th minute, the Impact worked the ball cautiously to Marco Di Vaio, who had dropped deeper than usual. He spread the ball wide toward...Jonny Steele. Gifted a counter-attack, BWP and Peguy Luyindula surged forward, and Steele picked the correct option, splitting the Montreal defense with a perfect pass to Peguy. Luyindula stroked a confident finish past Troy Perkins. Yes, every word of the last sentence is true.
At half-time, the Red Bulls, sans five starters and without ever looking like the better team, were winning in Montreal.
Roy Miller was withdrawn during the interval with the sort of mystery turf injury that thoroughly vindicates the club's decision to consistently shield Henry and Olave from the surface. Dax McCarty was released from the bench, Bobby Convey dropped back to cover Miller's position in defense.
The lineup wasn't doing a great job of controlling Montreal, but it's never ideal when a coach is forced to shuffle a team around due to injury rather than tactical necessity. Before anyone could decide whether the change was for better or worse, RBNY started the second half with a near-immediate opportunity to double the lead.
Petke's tactical selection for this match was basically a 4-1-4-1: with first Eric Alexander, then Dax McCarty, shielding the back line, and Bradley Wright-Phillips playing as a lone striker, occasionally supported by Luyindula. BWP can be a very good player for this team, but perhaps not if he is consistently marooned up top on his own. He managed one shot at goal for the match. Still, he does make the right sort of runs into the box: he did so when teaming up with Luyindula to create options for the Steele pass which brought about RBNY's second goal; he did so again when cutting into the box to get past Matteo Ferrari and draw the defender into a clumsy hug.
Embracing an opponent who is shaping to shoot at goal is a foul. When such affection is displayed in the 18-yard box, it is a penalty. It should, arguably, have been a red card as well.
The lack of any color-coded disciplinary action from the referee was too much for Mike Petke - who barked a profanely worded question at the fourth official. Bless you, Mike: you say what we're all thinking. I suspect the supporters' groups are already passing the hat round to cover your fine.
Nonetheless, the Impact might have been allowed to keep eleven bodies on the pitch, but there was still just one man allowed to stand between Luyindula and the goal for the ensuing penalty. Peguy, wearing the captain's armband, sent the keeper one way and the ball just too far in the other direction. It cracked off the post: still 2-1.
At this point, we have to assume it is sheer diffidence keeping Luyindula from the hero status he is so consistently ducking.
Even a two-goal lead might not have been sufficient to keep the Impact at bay. The blue-and-black shirts were rampant. The second-half highlights were Montreal's second goal, some desperate and self-damaging defending from RBNY (Sekagya almost put his studs through Kimura's chest), and Luis Robles's remarkable capacity to get his hands to the ball.
Robles was the man of the match for RBNY. And it is frustrating to watch any game in which your 'keeper is forced to be the star and your team still manages to leave the field as the one closest to winning all three points. This may obscure, understandably, the realization that this was one of the finer team performances we have seen.
There were plenty of individual mistakes made by New York players, plenty of errors to dwell upon if that is your preference. But if, as fans, we are looking for a group of players who will fight for each other, put their bodies on the line for the team, scramble to make the block or the clearance rather than point a finger: that's what we got this week.
This is no consolation for missing out on three points. Still, we left our stars at home, asked the remaining players to carry the team through a match it was not expected to win, and came away with a point. The draw itself is not a reason to congratulate the team; the fact it is a disappointment suggests this may have a been a better performance than it looked.
It was a determined, even disciplined, effort to defy expectations - and it worked. If you need further convincing, look no further than Armando: he lasted 84 minutes before the turf hobbled him; he threw down blocks, clearances, interceptions and tackles; and he did not attract a yellow card. He probably won't have many games like that this season - he is, irredeemably, a physical player - but he was following the game plan as best he could.
So, for the first time this year, it would seem RBNY pulled off exactly what Petke had planned for a game. In this case, the plan was conservative: don't lose. Now we must hope the same success can be found when in pursuit of a more expansive brief: score a lot of goals and win.