Toronto FC enters the final match of the month knowing there is a lot of soccer left to be played this season.
Friday’s clash away to CF Montreal will bring to the end the annual summer grind, closing out a difficult stretch of matches, where for every step forward there was a step back.
MLS takes a backseat to international action with the start of September, but when play resumes on September 11 away to FC Cincinnati a phase of the season will begin.
The pace will not relent – those triplets of three-game weeks followed by a pause will be a pattern going forward, with the Canadian Championship sprinkled in for good measure, but for now, a nearly-full week of training ahead of the derby has the side in good spirits.
“The week went very well,” said Javier Perez, kicking off his Zoom conference call on Thursday. “Obviously a disappointing performance in Miami. We had a hard talk. This is an experienced group of players, they are made of steel.”
“And this is a message in general for our fans: we don't want them to give up on us yet,” he relayed from the team. “We are set to still give some happiness to our fans. They have to stick with us because the group is strong, the group is fighting through all this, and we're going to win. We're going to go through this together. Good performances are going to come, results are going to come.
“The group is getting stronger,” Perez added, noting the returns of Chris Mavinga, Eriq Zavaleta, Jacob Shaffelburg, Dom Dwyer, and Tsubasa Endoh, who were unavailable or limited in recent outings. “We are in a good place to face this classic against Montreal.”
It’s been a tough year. There is no denying that. And the club finds themselves in a tough position winless in six, at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, 12 points off the pace of the final playoff berth.
Despite those challenges, “the morale is good still,” according to Justin Morrow.
“For how tough everything has been and given our results, the mood is good around here,” he continued. “We go into every game, preparing like we can win the game and to win the game. The results haven't shown out that way, but that's the mentality we have.”
“All that stuff depends on if guys hold belief that you can win games,” Morrow elaborated. “We have such talented players, guys who can put the ball in the back of the net or make the important pass. That's what continues to give us a belief that we can get wins. It will come.”
Under Perez the team has made advances both defensively and offensively. The final movement is still a work in progress, but it’s coming.
“It's just about putting together 90-minute games,” levelled Morrow. “You've seen good things on both sides of the ball in flashes, whether stabilizing the team defensively or getting more chances created, but they haven't come in a complete 90-minute match where we put it all together.”
“Once we do that,” he added. “That's when you're going to see the wins start coming.”
This weekend’s match is a particularly tasty one. Call it what you will – the 401 Derby, the Canadian Classique – it’s Toronto vs. Montreal. It’s on.
“It’s a different game,” pointed out Perez. “Everybody understands that it’s a rivalry. Beyond the tactics, beyond the state of the teams, it’s more about the mentality and who wants it most.”
Said Morrow: “It's a rivalry, just like all the best rivalries, that's not based in sport, but based in history.”
“I know that there's a lot of context there, but the matches between Montreal and ourselves have added to that,” he continued. “We go in knowing that it's going to be a tough game no matter what. Even in the best of years they've given us really hard games. I expect it to be a tight game; it's going to bring out the best in us.”
Like TFC, CF Montreal faced the difficult task of playing the first three-plus months of the campaign away from home, settling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, playing out of Inter Miami CF’s DRV PNK Stadium.
Long-time assistant coach Wilfried Nancy took the reins just before the season began and though Montreal too has had their difficult stretches, they found a way to accumulate points – they sit in sixth place in the East on 28 points from 21 games.
“Montreal has done pretty well during the season,” observed Perez. “They play a strong back five, then two, Wanyama and Piette, in the middle and then the three up front. At times [Djordje] Mihailovic comes a little bit deeper to build in the middle, at times he's up front. Overall it’s a strong side.”
“We played them at the beginning of the season,” he added. “[Our] group is looking for a good result; it’s going to be a good game.”
Montreal won that opening day encounter 4-2.
Mason Toye scored just three minutes in before Romell Quioto made it two after 24 minutes, but Mark Delgado pulled one back from the penalty spot before half-time. Wanyama and Mihailovic would respond in the second half, leaving Richie Laryea’s late strike as scant consolation.
But Toronto have won the last three league matches played in Montreal by a combined score of 5-1. The two will meet again later this year when Montreal comes to BMO Field on October 23.
Montreal enter unbeaten in three, with draws away to the Philadelphia Union and Cincinnati on the heels of a dramatic thrice-taken penalty kick win against the New York Red Bulls at Stade Saputo on August 14.
“In the middle they have midfielders that defend well on one side and then other midfielders that attack well, so they're a well balanced team,” analyzed Morrow. “Up top they have some speed and they've been finishing well.”
“For us it's challenges all around, but like most matches we go into it's about what we do,” he explained. “Making sure that we’ve prepared ourselves the best way possible, that we're mentally engaged, that we're bringing the appropriate energy, we're minimizing mistakes that lead to goals. If we do all those things, then we'll have a good competition tomorrow.”
In this most abnormal of years, one thing can be counted on: when Toronto and Montreal clash on the pitch, it brings out passion.
“Personally it feels very special to be the head coach of this team and to be the head coach heading into the classic,” smiled Perez. “This is the type of game that every coach wants to be part of. The group feels the same way and they know that it’s a special game. We are very excited to get to tomorrow evening, put together a good performance, and get the points.”
Fans of both teams will be in attendance, albeit with their numbers restricted by protocol.
“It'll be huge, the atmosphere tomorrow,” anticipated Morrow. “It's been a long time.”
“We've gotten a little bit of normalcy back here, being back in Toronto, being back in front of our own fans, but we know that these matches always bring something special. We know that the fans will elevate the match tomorrow,” he closed. “We're looking forward to having our fans up there and pushing us along like always.”