Just before halftime in the Eastern Conference knockout-round game, Ignacio Piatti picked up the ball on the edge of the D.C. United box. There were two defenders virtually in line between him and goal, daring him to take them on.
Instead, Piatti looked up, and with barely a hint of back-lift, hit the most perfectly placed little chip behind the remaining defenders, in front of Bill Hamid, and into the path of Matteo Mancosu. The scoreboard turned to 2-0 in favor of one of the best counterattacking teams in Major League Soccer and effectively ended the contest.
MLS doesn't have an award for assist of the season, but if there were one, that killer pass would be it. Montreal had always fancied the matchup of Piatti running at Nick DeLeon, but there was something especially demoralizing for the D.C. defender to do everything he thought he was supposed to do in standing Piatti up, only to hear the groans of the home crowd as he was still feeling the ball brushing past his jersey.
And if the subsequent playoff series against the New York Red Bulls would remind us of anything, it was that Piatti has more than one way to beat you. Perhaps that fact had become slightly lost in the run-in. MLS does have a Most Valuable Player award, of course, and at the start of the year Piatti was on most shortlists for his uptick in form from his impressive 2015. But by the time Montreal had started to limp down the stretch at a pace set by Didier Drogba's struggles with his back, the focus had shifted elsewhere. When the shortlist came out, the annual outrage was focused on the absence of Sebastian Giovinco, not Piatti.
Perhaps that's because teams thought they'd figured out the threat of Piatti or that the danger of him running at and beating players was much more minimal 45 yards from goal than 25 yards. A Drogba-led front three that also featured Dominic Oduro could be dangerous, sure, but with the limitations on Drogba's mobility, that danger could generally be contained further up the field.
That was the idea anyway, until Mancosu started to make a compelling case to start, and Drogba refused to sit on the bench for a crucial league game against Toronto on Oct. 16. One month on, Montreal looks unrecognizable and Piatti looks unplayable. The mazy runs are back again, but so too is the ability to improvise danger in multiple ways in the final third -- at just the right time to kill games.
In Montreal's second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal against New York, the Red Bulls might already have been suspecting it wasn't going to be their day when one of their two MVP candidates, Sacha Kljestan, missed a penalty, but the game was truly killed by Piatti.
In the 51st minute, Piatti was once again picked out just outside the box, this time at the top left. With Chris Duvall and Aurelien Collin trying to close him down, Piatti flicked the ball right then left in one fluid motion to deceive Duvall, then whipped a venomous drive past Collin's desperate lunge, and past the flailing arm of Luis Robles in the New York goal. It was 2-0 on aggregate, and a crucial away goal, just as New York was setting itself up for its last stand. Once again, the game was effectively over.
That sense of timing his interventions is one of Piatti's most devastating qualities -- his is a mindset made for Cup soccer. Away goals might count double as the mathematical tiebreaker, but his goals and assists have a habit of counting double in the psychological impact they have on his team and their opponents. The Red Bulls' other MVP candidate, Bradley Wright-Phillips would scuff in a goal at the other end moments later, but looking at the body language of him and his teammates, it was as if they knew the game had been up the moment Piatti applied his stiletto.
Piatti has got better and better in MLS. In his first full season last year, he scored nine goals and created eight assists -- remarkably, six of those assists were on game-winning goals -- in 26 games. That was enough to win him his team MVP award, but there was more to come. This year he has managed 17 goals in 32 games and has increased his shots on goal total by 30 percent.
And most crucially, in a month to the day since Drogba's revolt, Piatti has once again become the fulcrum of the team's attack. He's a playmaker who needs to be making plays as a matter of course, and as his influence has been revived, it's as if the degree of threat he poses has been exponentially increased, too.
The Olympic Stadium will be rocking on Nov. 22, expecting their hero to deliver -- and not the one who'll probably start on the bench. Right now it's Piatti's turn to show his value.