MONTREAL -- Given the uproar over the Montreal Impact's pursuit of an emergency goalkeeper before the biggest match in club history, things could have turned out worse.
After their efforts to acquire Chicago Fire keeper Sean Johnson on a short-term loan were (rightly) blocked by MLS in the midst of social media outcry, the Impact could've been forced to use a career minor leaguer or a 20-year-old with no first-team experience in net against Club America in Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League final.
Fortunately for them, not only did an eleventh-hour deal land them badly needed experience in the form of ex-Bundesliga backstop Kristian Nicht, it got them a player who has already been part of this unlikely run, which has the hosts on the brink of becoming the first MLS team to reach the FIFA Club World Cup.
"I'm not going to lie to you that we didn't look at a lot of different options," Impact coach Frank Klopas said on the eve of the match. "But in the end, we acquired him and he's someone that I think knows and fits really well within our group."
Nicht was actually with Montreal during the Impact's preseason trip to Mexico.
"It's difficult to replace your starting keeper with anyone you put in there, for sure," Klopas said. "But if you can say what's the best-case scenario, you bring a guy that's familiar to the group, that's an experienced player."
Experience was needed after CONCACAF confirmed starter Evan Bush's suspension for yellow card accumulation earlier this week. Backup Eric Kronberg is cup-tied, and the other keepers on the home team's roster, NASL loanee John Smits and academy product Maxime Crepeau, weren't options for a match of this magnitude.
Part of the reason Johnson was targeted was his familiarity to Klopas and starting center back Bakary Soumare, his former coach and teammate with the Chicago Fire. There's a similar comfort level with the well-traveled Nicht. The 33-year-old German, who played over 100 matches in his homeland (18 in Germany's all-world top flight) before crossing the Atlantic in 2012, was most recently with Indy Eleven in the American second tier.
"I'm very confident that I can do the job," he said Tuesday. "I've been in the business long enough. I haven't seen everything yet, but I've seen a lot and been all over the world, especially in Europe and North America now.
"I bring a little bit of life and soccer experience into the equation."
Still, it will require another team effort for the Impact to upset Club America, even after Montreal's unlikely 1-1 result last week at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
The star-studded visitors remain the heavy favorite. But they're also coming off the biggest match in their domestic season, Sunday's 1-1 tie at archrival Chivas. And depending on whom you talk to, America might either be wary of playing again so soon indoors, on turf in front of a Canadian-record 61,000 fans, or so overconfident that the first leg was a fluke that they're underestimating the challenge.
Bush subscribes to the former theory.
"You sense that they have some insecurities now," he said. "They might be a little fearful of us."
But America and U.S. national team defender Ventura Alvarado said his team respects the hosts. "We're going to go out to win the match," he said. But we have to be focused every minute."
- Why has Montreal been so successful in international play while struggling in MLS? For Impact captain and Quebec native Patrice Bernier, it comes down to the importance that the club places on the CONCACAF Champions League, the competition that first gave them relevancy in the city when they beat Mexican power Santos Laguna at home six years ago.
"In 2009 there was no expectations," Bernier said. "Nobody thought that a second-division club with a small budget could reach the quarterfinals and beat a top team from Mexico.
"It made an impression on the people of Montreal."
- Whether or not the Impact manage to complete their impossible dream, plenty of plaudits ought to go to Klopas. He took a team reconstructed in the offseason further than anyone thought possible -- not that the 48-year-old former U.S. national team midfielder would be seeking recognition.
"The best part about him is he doesn't care," Soumare said. "He's a guy who doesn't always get the credit he deserves, and for this to happen to him, I can't think of anyone who deserves this more.
"We're going to go out there and play for this club, play for this city, and we're going to go out there and play for our coach."
- After Montreal advanced past Alajuelense on April 7 to reach the final, Impact forward Dominic Oduro took to Twitter to complain that he had been subjected to racist abuse during the semifinal second leg in Costa Rica.
On Tuesday, CONCACAF came down hard on the club, levying an undisclosed fine (which a source described as "significant") and forcing them to play a future match in an empty stadium.
"I think they did the right thing," Oduro said after the punishment was made public. "It's something that I went through and hopefully it doesn't happen again.
"It takes away the fun of the game. We all just want to enjoy this beautiful game, so for some of the fans to do that was uncalled for."