Montreal Impact beat Columbus Crew 2-1 in opening leg of Eastern Conference semifinal

Montreal Impact beat Columbus Crew 2-1 in opening leg of Eastern Conference semifinal

Main pic: Columbus Crew SC ‘s Harrison Afful, right, looks on as Montreal Impact’s Patrice Bernier, left, celebrates after scoring against Columbus Crew SC during first half first leg MLS playoff soccer action in Montreal, Sunday, November 1, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

MONTREAL — Getting key performances off the bench has become a handy tool for the Montreal Impact’s playoff run.

It happened again on Sunday night, when substitute Johan Venegas scored the game-winner in the 77th minute to lift the Impact to a 2-1 comeback victory over the Columbus Crew in the opening leg of their MLS Eastern Conference semifinal on Sunday night.

Federico Higuain gave Columbus the lead in the 33rd minute, but Impact captain Patrice Bernier, with his second goal of the post-season, tied it in the 37th. Venegas scored after subbing in for Bernier in the second half.

The Impact will take a one-goal lead into the second leg of the two-game, total-goals series next Sunday in Columbus, although the Crew escaped with an away goal that could be the tiebreaker, depending on what happens in the second leg.

“These are not easy games,” said 36-year-old Bernier, who had not scored at all in a regular season in which he played mostly off the bench under former coach Frank Klopas. “It was important to win for our confidence.

“Now they have to win the (next) game. In the last few games there were times it wasn’t pretty but we found a way to win. Today again. And there was more proof that we have depth. Venegas comes in and scores. But the job’s not done yet.”

The Impact maintained the roll they got on in early September, when mid-season acquisition Didier Drogba became a starter and Mauro Biello replaced Klopas as coach. They are 9-2-2 since then, including 2-2-2 on the road.

Playing their third game in eight days, the Impact lacked the sharpness and energy they showed in a 3-0 victory over Toronto FC in the knockout round of the playoffs on Thursday night.

And the match had its chippy moments, especially in the second half. Referee Chris Penso showed the yellow card to Drogba, for a silly takedown of goalie Steve Clark in the 87th minute, Ambroise Oyongo and Victor Cabrera for Montreal and Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro for Columbus.

What Biello called a “soft” foul call nullified an apparent Drogba goal in the 15th minute. There were other calls the Montreal coach felt went against his club and had the 17,655 at Saputo Stadium braying, but Bernier refused to join the chorus.

“It was a playoff game,” said Bernier. “It’s two teams that don’t want to give an inch.

“I didn’t see anything reckless. Yes, there’s contact. People are playing to win and there are emotions, but it’s the playoffs. There were no cheap shots. I thought the referee did a good job to keep it open and as fair as possible.”

The Crew jumped on a rare miscue from Drogba. Backing up in the Montreal goal area to play a lob pass from Justin Meram, Drogba got little force on a header and it went to Higuain for a goal into an open side.

Bernier got it back four minutes later with a clean header from six yards out off a corner kick from Marco Donadel.

Only four minutes after Venegas replaced Bernier, the Costa Rican won a battle for the ball with Michael Parkhurst and went in on a two on one with Drogba. Venegas elected to shoot and picked the far corner for the game-winner.

“There’s a guy who was struggling and he came in and got a goal,” said Biello. “That will be good for his confidence.”

The Impact won both of their games against Columbus in the regular season, 2-1 away and 3-0 at Saputo Stadium.

Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press

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