Patrice Bernier and Montreal Impact focus on making CONCACAF history

After Montreal's epic semi-final second leg against Alajuelense in Costa Rica, the team released a video showing the squad en route to the stadium, being jeered by opposing fans as an official warned them to keep away from the windows of the team bus and "not make eye contact" on the approach to the stadium.

Some players look suitably tense at these warnings, but then a familiar head pops into frame in front of the camera, grinning that "This is the real deal! Real deal!" and looking for all the world like he is on a fun fairground ride.

Speaking about that experience from Mexico City, during Montreal's trip for the first leg of the final against Club America, Patrice Bernier relives the experience of being on that bus in Costa Rica:

"It was nice."


"Yeah. For me, having played with the Canadian national team in Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, these are fairly 'hot' places to deal with in terms of very fanatical, passionate fans and they try to intimidate you," says Bernier.

"Playing Panama in the last World Cup qualifying, the Panamanian fans were in front of the hotel partying all night, so for me it's nice...I get easily motivated for these games. OK I won't say 'nice' -- it's not that you want to see people throwing stuff, but it's a motivator.

"When you're playing there and you know that all these people are against you, you don't need a team talk, you don't need a coach to get you ready for the game."

Bernier and his teammates survived the intimately hostile atmosphere against Alajuelenese to advance on away goals before surviving and indeed almost thriving to secure a 1-1 draw in front of the 100,000 plus fans at the Azteca Stadium in leg one of the final against Club America.

"You want that experience of playing in front of thousands of hostile fans," says Bernier. "I think a lot of guys don't get to experience that in their careers, because some are not on their national team, especially perhaps a CONCACAF national team, and I think some of us who are take the atmosphere from qualifier games into games like this.

"The experience I've had with CONCACAF qualifiers, that's why I say I like it, I like the passion, on the field and off the field. Yeah people were throwing coins and things like that (in Costa Rica), but it's the environment as a whole when you go there -- the club and the fans as a 12th player in Central America and South America is a passionate combination and a lot of times they succeed."

Not against the unflappable Bernier though. Now he and his Impact teammates will try and complete the job on Wednesday in front of 59,000 of their own fans at the city's Olympic Stadium, where they hope to claim a first MLS triumph in the Champions League since the competition moved to its current format.

If they do it, nobody will appreciate the significance more than Bernier, who's been there since the start. A one-time part of their USL Pro incarnation, he was brought back as the club's first signing when they joined MLS in 2012 and, far from being a symbolic presence within the team, has repeatedly set the tone on a journey that now has the club on the verge of a regional title and a Club World Cup place.

Bernier is now 35 and has seen the team go through several changes and been key to many of them. When the Impact first arrived in MLS as a basic 4-4-2 team looking for an identity, it was his shift deeper in the midfield that helped then-coach Jesse Marsch's side emerge as a more subtle 4-2-3-1 side.

And there have even been transitions from game to game. Last year, Montreal's MLS season began to drift early and even with the generous target of the playoffs to aim for, the Champions League quickly became the principal focus. As Bernier puts it, in some ways that's due to the immediacy of cup football:

"Last year in the Canadian Cup we won in the dying seconds against Edmonton on a penalty to go to the final, where we beat Toronto," he says. "And the season in MLS wasn't great at that time, it was a very poor regular season, but it was one of those years where the Cup can save your season almost.

"Your efforts in the Cup get you the reward right away...the high intensity and high emotion when you see that you can bond together (over 90 minutes) and manage a difficult result. You reach a mental state and get a reward right away, whereas perhaps in MLS you win or you lose but you get towards the end of the season and realize you're not close to getting what you're looking for."

The mention of mental states is no incidental one when it comes to Bernier's contributions -- the penalty he mentions was deep into injury-time with the Impact facing elimination by the NASL side and was scored, after a stutter step, by one Patrice Bernier. He's a cool operator.

Now, in what he himself calls the "dying years" of his playing career, Bernier's not the quickest player on the field any more but his reading of the game and his astuteness is second to none.

What is always been striking is Bernier's enthusiasm for the tactical side of the game and desire to explore and develop methods of "efficiency" which, along with "clinical", is the recurring word in his comments about the virtues of his team in this Champions League campaign.

Bernier is the epitome of the ideal of working smarter not harder and could wax lyrical on the virtues of his beloved Barcelona for hours. When we talk about his possible plans to coach in the future, they're the first touchstone:

"I'll be honest, that's the type of football I grew up with -- pass and move," he says. "And I love Barcelona and that style's ingrained in me and I'd love to find a way to try and implement it with a team. But you know the game evolves and you'll have noticed there's a lot more transition now in the game, so even Barcelona play with a little more counter-attack than before.

"The game evolves and what I've realized is that you have to evolve it. You can have that style of play but you have to evolve it with the game that's developing, which is being played in tighter spaces and transition is much more of a trend right now.

"But yeah, deep in my roots, I think the Barcelona style of pass and move, being comfortable on the ball, making the ball run. We sometimes have the mentality that we have to run, run, run, but the ball goes faster than a man, and if you make the ball run you're sharper in the game to be able to execute and be efficient."

And efficiency on the counter has been the hallmark of Montreal's progress in this competition, up to and including the first leg of the final, when that vital Ignacio Piatti goal gave them a crucial road goal to bring back to Montreal.

The Impact's run is all the more noteworthy given that all this has been achieved despite the fact that the complexion of the team has changed between the group stages, which ended last year, and the knockout stages that began in February.

"It's difficult for sure," admits Bernier. "I think we did well last year, psychologically and physically to get the results. And now we have a new cycle of players and we don't play exactly the same way as we used to. it's much more of a counter-attacking team these days.

"We have pieces that came in like Piatti, [Dilly] Duka...Dominic Oduro in terms of wingers...Jack McInerney came in towards the start of last season and we don't have exactly the same type of player that we used to have at the end of last season.

"But we are finding ways where the coaches are doing a lot of work tactically to keep us aware of what the opponent is like and now developing much more around individual battles. So the wingers are able to bring a sense of spark, and Piatti is able to find solutions. It's not easy of course because we lost Marco Di Vaio which is a big piece up front for our goalscoring...but..."

Bernier speaks in a flow of bullet points and contingencies, as he thinks through all the factors at play in front of him, looking for the solution. It's how he seems to play too -- putting his foot on the ball, considering options, looking for the best answer.

If he's introduced into the second leg -- increasingly he finds himself coming off the bench -- it'll probably mean that the Impact are in sight of their goal and need to steady themselves over the line. Bernier may be on his third coach of the MLS Impact era, but remains as good a proxy as ever on the field under current boss Frank Klopas, as is demonstrated in his take on Club America:

"They like to go forward and they use a lot of space, and you have guys with a lot of skill and pace that can use the space, and I think they're aware of that, but the guys here in MLS and at Montreal are good athletes also and we can use that to our advantage," says Bernier.

"We know they're going to have a lot of possession and we can use that by being aware and being efficient and clinical and like I said, as we were against Pachuca when we were there or against Alajuelense when we were at home, or even away. Just being very efficient, clinical and taking our chances when we get them."

"We'll be prepared," continues Bernier. "We know who we're going against, but Club America is probably the biggest club in CONCACAF and these are the games you want to play. When I was a kid I wanted to be in finals, playing in front of a lot of people and hopefully win and once we played that first quarter final game, the coaching staff was very adamant that it was possible to win the tournament.

"[We need] High emotion, high intensity if we were going to do it, but it was a possibility to do something and leave a mark on the club, on MLS history and on Canadian soccer history also."

That would be nice.