Playing your best soccer in a game with few short-term consequences is always a bit tricky, and so it proved for D.C. United. Despite owning a sizable possession advantage and producing more shots, crosses, and just about every other attacking stat than the Montreal Impact, the Black-and-Red were held to a 1-1 draw at Stade Saputo. Marco Di Vaio's 27th minute strike gave the Impact a lead they nearly made stand up, only for Fabian Espindola to deliver yet another moment of class to pull United level late on.
United came out as the aggressor despite fielding a lineup short three starters. Davy Arnaud, Taylor Kemp, and both potential starting left midfielders (Chris Pontius and Chris Rolfe) were left home for the trip. Jared Jeffrey replaced Arnaud in central midfield, Chris Korb took over at left back, and Academy product Collin Martin played at left midfield for the visitors, while Montreal boss Frank Klopas opted for a young back four due to a trio of starters being suspended.
Nick DeLeon had the earliest look at goal for either side, but fired his 3rd minute attempt over the bar after Eddie Johnson knocked down an aerial ball at the top of the box. The opening 15 minutes saw United produce several spells of possession in the Impact half, with Maxim Tissot robbing DeLeon of a potential one-on-one with an 8th minute toe poke and Karl Ouimette making an even bigger intervention to stop Johnson from having what would have amounted to an old-school MLS shootout run at goal.
United's high line was working well early, but Montreal showed signs of fighting back. A 13th minute curler from Issey Nakajima-Farran arced over Bill Hamid - who appeared to have the shot covered - and kissed the top of the crossbar before going behind. From that moment on, Montreal claimed the initiative; Di Vaio fired a free kick wide, and Montreal also won a corner that ended with a brief, desperate call for a handball on Johnson that referee Silviu Petrescu correctly ignored.
Still, the warning signs were there as United's passing got sloppy in what was a constant downpour in Quebec. Montreal would eventually take the lead on a goal that was classic Di Vaio. Jeffrey lost his footing while trying to switch the point of attack, instead sending his pass straight at Nakajima-Farran. Under pressure from Di Vaio, Bobby Boswell rushed his clearing header, and Dilly Duka then beat Jeffrey to the loose ball to one-time a through ball for Di Vaio to chase down behind the defense. Di Vaio initially looked offside, but replays showed that he was level with Steve Birnbaum. Just when it appeared that he had taken one touch too many and allowed Boswell to recover, Di Vaio rolled the ball underneath Hamid with the outside of his right foot and into the far side netting.
Montreal gained confidence from the goal, and United was nearly 2-0 down just five minutes later after Nakajima-Farran's shot hit Boswell but continued towards goal. Hamid was wrong-footed due to the shot's initial trajectory, but fortunately the ball bounced wide of his right-hand post.
United finally started connecting passes again, but Montreal - looking far more organized with a back four consisting of academy products and Generation Adidas players than their normal mix of Serie A, Ligue 1, and USMNT vets - collapsed space well as a team and seemed comfortable with forcing United to try to chip away at the periphery.
Just before halftime, the visitors had their best spell of the half. A cross from Chris Korb was half-cleared to Martin, whose 43rd minute shot was charged down by a crowd of defenders. The Impact never got clear from that moment, however, and DeLeon probably should have done a bit better with Johnson's layoff than shoot straight into goalkeeper Evan Bush's arms from 20 yards. Moments later, DeLeon tried to return the favor by playing Johnson in behind, but Johnson was not given time to get a shot away thanks to Ouimette and the onrushing Bush.
The start of the second half was more even, but Montreal created the first two looks. A cross-field ball found Di Vaio out on the right, and he eventually cut inside on Boswell and aimed a left-footer towards the lower corner of United's goal. Hamid produced a strong save to tip the 50th minute striker wide for a corner.
Two minutes later, Sean Franklin likely saved a goal following an Impact counter. A 50/50 ball fell to Duka, who sent Andres Romero clear behind United's back four. Romero had Di Vaio running with him and squared what looked to be a sure assist towards the penalty spot, but Franklin recovered to poke the ball away. Franklin would leave the game with an injury in the 65th minute, though the issue was not immediately clear.
That moment appeared to be something of a wake-up call for United, who saw Boswell head an Espindola corner kick wide at the near post in the 56th minute and then had a weakly-struck Espindola shot go straight to Bush in the 58th. Four minutes later, Johnson's cross from inside the box looked like it would find DeLeon on the doorstep, but Calum Mallace produced a Franklin impression to deny United an equalizer.
Petrescu's officiating become something of a point of contention for United fans after Wandrille Lefevre committed four fouls in the space of fifteen minutes, but to be fair Petrescu was relatively permissive throughout the match. Lefevre's fourth foul of the bunch eventually turned into a corner for United, which saw Birnbaum mimic Boswell's earlier effort by nodding wide at the near post.
Montreal were starting to drop off in an attempt to make their 1-0 lead stand up, ceding almost all of the possession to the Black-and-Red. They nearly broke down anyway and were saved by a misunderstanding between Espindola and Korb. Espindola wisely decided to slot Korb through on goal after the Akron product had charged forward from left back and was not being tracked, but just as the ball was passed, Korb elected to halt his run (likely thinking that Espindola was going to dial up his own number for a shot).
Finally, United would turn their possession into a goal in the 86th minute, and in part due to all three substitutes. The equalizer never would have happened if not for some hard work tracking back by substitute Lewis Neal, whose sliding interception ended a Montreal foray and let United resume attacking.
The promising move ended with Lefevre giving up a corner kick to another sub - David Estrada - who had come across from the left wing. Espindola hustled over to play the corner kick short to Samuel Inkoom (who replaced Franklin), and the Ghanaian laid the ball off for Espindola to run onto. United's #9 evaded a tackle from Nakajima-Farran before running parallel to the top of the box for a few touches, and then fired a left-footed bullet through the crowd and into the lower corner at Bush's left-hand post.
United seemed to sense a tiring Impact side and tried to pursue a winning goal. The game got streched as a result, and both teams went close in the first minute of stoppage time. Krzysztof Krol's aimess long ball found Boswell, who quickly pushed the ball forward on the ground for Johnson. Lefevre stepped up with the initial interception, but the ball bounced straight to Estrada, who alertly used his first touch to play Johnson in on goal. Unfortunately for Johnson and United, Bush produced a tremendous 1v1 save to keep the scores level.
Montreal then surged upfield, but Di Vaio's audacious attempt to lob Hamid from the far corner of the penalty area sailed a couple of yards wide. It would turn out to be the final moment of Di Vaio's career, as he was removed to a welcome ovation from the crowd at Stade Saputo (including a hearty band of United supporters).
In the end, United couldn't produce another shot, and would be forced to settle for a draw. The result leaves DCU with a record of 17W-8D-9L, good enough for first place in the Eastern Conference but only third place overall. If United were to advance to MLS Cup, the match would be played at RFK Stadium only if both the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy were eliminated out west.