Major League Soccer doesn’t realize how good it has it with Toronto FC and Montreal Impact in an unprecedented all-Canadian Conference Final.
Given the seeming favoritism toward the New York clubs with MVP nominee snubs to Sebastian Giovinco and Ignacio Piatti and questionable lack of disciplinary action against New York City FC’s David Villa, the Canadian clubs left no doubt as to who the two best players in the league and two best teams in the East are. And that’s what matters most.
From a footballing perspective, MLS has a winner on its hands with an unexpected renewal of the “401 Derby.”
On top of the historic rivalry between the cities, TFC–Impact matches have been getting more and more significant as the teams improve. Both clubs are in uncharted waters in their first conference final.
Impact as Underdog
Montreal thrives in the underdog role. Tactically, they’ve learned to absorb pressure and counter clinically. That’s how they beat TFC in August after going down a man and they’ve continued to achieve success this way in the playoffs.
Piatti is a tireless worker with exquisite technique. He is a nightmare to defend one-on-one. He is Montreal’s Giovinco.
Dominic Oduro’s speed is a valuable weapon on the counter and mid-season pickup Matteo Mancosu’s finishing ability has been a revelation.
Defensively, the Impact have learned to lock it down after playing musical chairs with the backline for most of the season. Captain Patrice Bernier has experienced resurgence and relishes going against the best in MLS like TFC’s Michael Bradley.
The pulsating 2–2 draw played at Stade Saputo on Oct. 16 between the two rivals gives a good idea of what to expect. The Impact took charge of that game and held 1–0 and 2–1 leads before TFC took over late in the game.
Head coach Mauro Biello and team management have expertly handled the Didier Drogba affair that boiled over prior to that match. The locker room is a tight-knit group that hasn’t let external speculation re. Drogba derail their togetherness.
Biello told TSN on Sunday, “We came together at the right time.”
“The way we got into the playoffs…it prepared us for this time,” Evan Bush told TSN. The keeper has a proven ability to make the big save when needed.
It’s critical for Montreal to get the lead. Then the opposition plays into their hands. Excluding what became a meaningless loss in New England on the last day of the season, Montreal hasn’t trailed in a game since a Sept. 24 loss to—oddly enough—the Red Bulls.
Since the start of the playoffs, Montreal has been able to roll out the same starting XI and they’ve won all three of their games. The three-game win streak is Montreal’s longest of the season.
TFC has used the same starting XI in their last four games, all wins. Their 3–5–2 formation has allowed Bradley to find his best position in the lineup and play his two best games of the year against NYCFC.
Up front, Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are a terrifying duo.
Many say Giovinco is the best player ever to play in MLS. The tiny Italian scored a hat trick against NYCFC on Sunday in TFC’s biggest win to date.
Head coach Greg Vanney’s strategy was perfect. He knew he had the weapons to attack NYCFC and figured that getting that precious away goal would put New York behind the 8-ball. “We wanted to come in and be aggressive. We were playing for that goal,” he told TSN.
“From the first minute, it was a very good performance. We didn’t want to sit back,” Bradley said.
TFC’s cohesiveness was on display as they kept working tirelessly to close down spaces for NYCFC.
“It’s not about any one person in particular. It’s about the group,” Bradley said.
Toronto is more attack-minded than Montreal and knows it can come back from deficits as it did in its final two regular season games.
Unfortunately, TFC and the Impact won’t be getting it on this weekend due to the FIFA international break for 2018 World Cup qualifiers, nor will the two matches be played on weekends due to Toronto’s BMO Field hosting the Grey Cup on Nov. 27.
Montreal hosts the first leg Tues. Nov. 22 at Olympic Stadium where 61,004 came to see the CONCACAF Champions League final. Toronto hosts the return leg at BMO Field on Weds. Nov. 30.
Having two Canadian teams in the Conference Final means a Canadian team will play for MLS Cup for the first time. And Toronto may host its second MLS Cup if it wins and Seattle beats Colorado in the Western Conference Final.
These are big moments for football in Canada and MLS. All hope key players return from the international break unharmed so the momentum for Montreal and Toronto keeps going and the matches realize their potential.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports