Impact eyeing playoff berth with Fire in town

Montreal Impact defender Daniel Lovitz and Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger battle for the ball during second half MLS action Wednesday, August 16, 2017 in Montreal. he Montreal Impact are anticipating a slumping Chicago Fire team to be more dangerous and unpredictable than the last time these teams met. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact are anticipating a slumping Chicago Fire team to be more dangerous and unpredictable than the last time these teams met.

The Impact host Chicago at Saputo Stadium in Major League Soccer action on Saturday, less than three weeks after they beat the Fire soundly 3-0 in Montreal. A draw or victory would put the seventh-place Impact back in playoff contention. Montreal is tied on points with sixth-place Atlanta United, who do not play this weekend.

“Any time you play a team two times pretty close together, especially when we beat them, they’re going to come out in a different way, in a more strong way,” said defender Daniel Lovitz at practice on Friday. “We have to anticipate that and match that.”

The Impact flexed their muscles against the Fire on home soil on Aug. 16.

Chicago dominated possession (66 per cent) but failed to do much with the ball. Montreal caught the Fire flat-footed on the counterattack on all three of its goals. Ignacio Piatti scored a brace and striker Matteo Mancosu added a third from the penalty spot.

“Tomorrow’s match will be a really difficult one,” said Mancosu, who has only scored once in his last 11 games. “Chicago is a good team. Two weeks ago we won a good game, and now they want to win against us, so we have to play even better than we did last game.”

That match was the first of Montreal’s four-game homestand, which ends this weekend. With both teams trending in opposite directions, five points now separate Montreal from the fourth-place Fire. The Impact have one game in hand.

“We’re playing against a team that’s ahead of us in the standings and we have to close that gap,” said head coach Mauro Biello. “They’re definitely going to play with some urgency and that makes them dangerous. We have to be ready for that.”

Biello’s starting lineup will look very different this time around.

The Impact (10-9-6) have five players on international duty: Blerim Dzemaili (Switzerland), Laurent Ciman (Belgium), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Canada), Samuel Piette (Canada) and Shaun Francis (Jamaica).

That means Montreal’s depth players will be thrust into a starting role.

Back from injury, midfielders Andres Romero and Marco Donadel could see prolonged minutes on Saturday. Romero, who came off the bench in Montreal’s last two games, has not started for the club since tearing his ACL in 2015. Donadel has missed the last four games with a knee injury.

Midfielder Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla is also available while centre back Deian Boldor could make his Impact debut.

“It’s an opportunity for other players who aren’t getting much playing time,” said captain Patrice Bernier. “We’re going to make do with the players we have. We have to make sure to get a win so that when they get back, this team is still on the right track.”

The Fire (12-9-5) will only be missing one player to international duty: midfielder Dax McCarty, who plays a World Cup qualifier for the United States on Saturday.

Having a near-complete lineup should be a much-needed boost for a club going through its worst stretch of the season.

After a fiery start to the campaign, Chicago has since cooled off. Veljko Paunovic’s men have lost four consecutive games and six of their last seven.

Leading goal-scorer Nemanja Nikolic, who scored 16 goals in his first 18 games this season, has failed to find the back of the net in his last eight.

“We started the season really well and now we’re struggling,” Nikolic told the team’s website this week. “But we’re the same team, the same players who were top of the table just a few weeks ago. We just need confidence back to find that same mentality we had.”

Notes: Piatti was named the MLS player for the month for August. … The Impact are 6-4-5 all-time against the Fire. … It’s the third meeting of the season between Montreal and Chicago.

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