MONTREAL — CF Montreal was forced to settle for a draw despite leading into the final minutes of their match against FC Cincinnati after a last-minute equalizer on Wednesday night
A late penalty goal from Luciano Acosta denied CF Montreal all three points against the league-leaders at Stade Saputo.
Mahala Opoku was the lone goal scorer for Montreal (11-14-4), while Acosta’s penalty prevented Cincinnati (17-4-8) from losing a fifth game in their last eight in all competitions.
“There was this feeling that the game was done and that we had done enough, but it’s not over until the final whistle,” said head coach Hernan Losada. “I’m very happy with the team’s performance ... but every time you play against the best team in the league, a win isn’t safe."
Both teams approached the beginning of the game cautiously, unwilling to allow a mistake that could lead to the opening goal.
Both teams traded half-chances in the opening stages of the game, but it took until the 40th minute for the first clear cut chance of the match when Cincinnati's Santiago Arias found a free header off a corner, but placed it just wide of the goal.
“They have a lot of really good players that can hurt you, so we just wanted to stay compact,” said defender Joel Waterman. “It’s just about staying solid defensively like we have all season. All 11 guys working to not give them anything.”
After halftime, Montreal made a tactical switch that would open up the entire game. They changed formation to 3-4-3 in order to overload the flanks, bringing on Lassi Lappalainen as a winger. The tactical tweak had immediate effect as Montreal gained ground and chances down the right-hand side.
That, in turn, opened up the middle of the park, something Opoku exploited at the 52nd minute. After finding space at the top of the penalty area, Opoku fired a perfect shot into the bottom left corner, giving the hosts the lead.
“When I got the ball, I noticed the position of the 'keeper and the defenders getting back and they give me a chance to shoot. I know I can hit the ball, so it was a good moment,” he said. “The movement of the players really helped us create the chances get to the goal.”
After going down, the league leaders began pressing in search for an equalizer. Yuya Kubo got on the end of a low cross in the 68th minute, but could not get it past goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois who tipped the shot onto the crossbar, preserving Montreal’s lead.
As each Cincinnati attack was repelled, Montreal rallied, forcing the visitors to throw more players forwards. But Cincinnati found a lifeline late on.
With just a minute left in added time, Alvaro Barreal fired a long ball into the penalty area in a desperate bid to find an equalizer. Quick off his line, Sirois clattered into Dominique Badji’s back without getting the ball which led to a penalty. Major League Soccer MVP front-runner Acosta stepped up and confidently dispatched the spot kick, sealing the 1-1 draw at the death.
Despite missing out on a vital three points that could help secure a playoff berth, Losada did not shy away from showing admiration for how far the team had come while defending a lead. He pointed out that five months ago this same team was played off the pitch by Cincinnati en route to a resounding 3-0 loss.
“You have to be proud of the evolution of the team. As a collective, many young guys are playing incredible soccer,” said Losada. “The passion, the energy, and the commitment to every ball when we defend is huge. We made a great progression and we need to make sure we get that reward at the end of the year.”
Both teams will now turn their attention to on Sep. 23 as Montreal travels to Atlanta United while Cincinnati returns home to host Charlotte FC.
Elias Grigoriadis, The Canadian Press