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CF Montreal adds reinforcements for meeting with red-hot Real Salt Lake

MONTREAL — CF Montreal’s bye week gave head coach Laurent Courtois a chance to step back, assess his team and chart a plan for the rest of the season as the Major League Soccer midway mark approaches.
CF Montreal forward Matias Coccaro looks on against the Seattle Sounders during the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Seattle. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Lindsey Wasson

MONTREAL — CF Montreal’s bye week gave head coach Laurent Courtois a chance to step back, assess his team and chart a plan for the rest of the season as the Major League Soccer midway mark approaches.

And more importantly, it allowed Montreal’s long list of injured players time to recover.

Strikers Matias Coccaro, Josef Martinez and Kwadwo Opoku are healthy after lengthy absences as Montreal (4-7-5, 10th in the Eastern Conference) prepares to host red-hot Real Salt Lake (9-2-6, first in Western Conference) on Saturday night at Saputo Stadium.

“A big part of it was to get people healthy and to fix a little bit the morale of the troops,” Courtois said of the break Friday. “In that sense, these past two weeks have been really beneficial.

"Having all the people together brings a whole different dynamic. Everybody wants to win his spot.”

Forward Mason Toye and winger Lassi Lappalainen are also back, while midfielder Ousman Jabang and wingback Raheem Edwards remain sidelined.

Striker Jules-Anthony Vilsaint was seen doing solo work at training and winger Ariel Lassiter will be absent against Salt Lake after receiving a red card in Montreal's last game, a 2-2 draw with Philadelphia Union on June 1.

Who plays Saturday, and for how long, remains a question with so many players still seeking game fitness, Courtois said.

Opoku (ankle) hasn't played since a 2-1 win at FC Dallas on March 2. Coccaro and Martinez, two of Montreal's marquee signings last off-season, last took the pitch in a 2-1 victory over FC Cincinnati on April 13 due to knee injuries.

Through seven games played, Coccaro has three goals and one assist while Martinez has two goals and three assists.

Amid the injuries, Montreal had a run of nine games without a win, including a 5-1 loss to rival Toronto FC and a defeat to the Canadian Premier League’s Forge FC in the Canadian Championship.

Montreal, however, is only two points back of the MLS playoff cut line after two draws and a win in its last three games.

Defender George Campbell hopes that trend in the right direction can continue with the full squad mostly back.

"We have a lot of guys coming back, particularly our strikers and just the whole group. We had a break at a good time,” Campbell said. “We got to pick up where we left off."

The challenge ahead happens to be perhaps the hottest team in the league.

Salt Lake is on a 13-game unbeaten streak (8-0-5) that began with a 2-1 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 23 at B.C. Place.

Ranked fifth in the West last year, Saturday's visitors are on pace for a significant improvement in the standings. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni said his team needs to understand it won’t have the same element of surprise in the second half of the season.

"Knowing that we're going to get everyone's best game, what we did in the first part season isn't going to be good enough,” he said. “Instead of being the hunter, now we'll be the hunted."

Captain Cristian Arango has a league-leading 16 goals after scoring a hat trick last time out against Austin FC, scoring the first of three with a stunner from his own half. He also has nine assists, while teammate Andres Gomez has eight goals and six assists to form a dynamic duo.

"They're a confident team and they score a lot of goals, especially their striker,” Campbell said. “I think we realize in watching video that he wants to shoot all the time.”

But Courtois believes Salt Lake is more than just a two-man show.

"They have special individuals up top that are a clear difference-maker on their own,” he said. “But also what is maybe a little bit more impressive is the resilience they have, they've been in a couple of bad situations numerous times and they were able to to flip the scenario of the game.

“There's a lot of other ‘red flags’ that Salt Lake is a really good team."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2024.

Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press