TORONTO – Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild month.
Relatively speaking, it’s been a quiet few years between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
But it’s heating up.
The two teams will meet three times in the coming weeks: first at BMO Field on Saturday in the middle of the CNE festivities, then twice in September over the two legs of the 2019 Canadian Championship final.
Rivals since a ball was kicked between the two, it was the MLS Cup Playoff encounter in 2015 that sparked the recent flare in the bad blood between the two sides with Montreal bumping Toronto out of their first-ever post-season appearance with three goals in the opening stage of a knockout match.
“That was a moment and a feeling that all of us took heavy and carried for a long offseason,” recalled Greg Vanney. “That was an embarrassing loss.”
“Whenever you start to add emotions into any game, especially if it’s a rivalry game, which has that extra bit anyways, it feels bigger and carries a larger weight,”continued Vanney. “That game, the playoffs of 2016, which was an epic series, which captivated everybody, the rollercoaster of emotions through that series, built more.”
“The Canadian Championship of 2017 had an epic finish too,” added the coach. “These are emotional moments. The more emotion gets ramped up and you get on the edge of your seat, or you’re the winner and it’s euphoria, or you’re the loser and it feels like the end of something, it becomes bigger. That’s where we are.”
With the 2019 season reaching a crescendo, the stakes have been raised between the two once more.
“The Canadian Championship at the end of the season, everybody is playing for that trophy, but also it coincides with your form down the stretch with both of us competing head-to-head for a playoff spot,” summed up Vanney. “I can’t see more emotions going into these three games than possible. It’s there. It has the makings of another epic stretch here.”
Since Sebastian Giovinco scored deep in stoppage-time to see TFC lift the Voyageurs Cup in 2017, it has been a period of quiet in the history between the clubs.
The teams have met six times in MLS action, each winning three and losing three.
Under that surface, however, the rivalry is always bubbling.
“Yeah, [you always feel it],” said Justin Morrow. “Especially being one who has been here through big matches with them. There is a lot of bad blood there.”
“Three matches with Montreal, where there is something on the line, there is a little bit more there in the air,” relished Morrow. “We know the fans are going to bring it, they feel that too, so we’re looking forward to it.”
The new boys know it too, well-versed in the history.
“[The] final where Raheem Edwards, very good friend of mine, cuts the ball back to Giovinco and he scores. The 2016 Eastern Conference finals,” listed Richie Laryea. “I was there for that game, I got to watch that one live. It was amazing. Dramatic, intense, it had goals. Everything you want from a big game like that, especially against a rival.”
Liam Fraser, then yet to sign for the first team, was also in the house for that second leg in the pouring rain, where Benoit Cheyrou nodded in Steven Beitashour’s cross in stoppage-time and Tosaint Ricketts added some insurance as TFC won 5-2 on the night to take the series 7-5 on aggregate.
“We all know what’s on the line every time we play against them,” said Fraser. “It’s not just the three points, it’s pride within Canada. It’s a massive game that the whole team get up for it.”
“It’s a derby game, it’s a dogfight,” added Fraser. “You never need any extra motivation to play Montreal.”
Though yet to sample the rivalry in MLS, Fraser was involved in several TFC II-FC Montreal clashes in USL.
He scored a 90th minute equalizer when the two met early in the 2016 season and, though not in the lineup, remembers the combative match that saw a pair of red cards and a handful of yellow brandished at the end as both sides refused to back down later that season.
“A kid from Toronto, any time you get the opportunity to play against Montreal it’s always circled on your calendar. It was emotional [to score the late goal], but I’m over that. On to Saturday,” said Fraser. “I remember [Mitch Taintor’s red card]. If that’s what you’ve got to do against Montreal... you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
There is one game that stands out from the last six: a 5-3 Montreal win in Toronto in September 2017, a match often overlooked in what turned out to be a historic treble-winning season for TFC.
“That was a big game,” reminded Vanney. “It was a little stretch where we weren’t in the same form that we had been coming through the summer. We were grinding for sure.”
“There are losses in every season, especially when you’re having a great season,” continued Vanney. “Last year [for] Atlanta, [it] was us. We beat Atlanta [on the final day of the regular season] that reminded them that this just wasn’t going to be easy, that helped them go on to win the Championship.”
“That game against Montreal was one of those for us: we lost for the first time at home, lost to our rival, it was towards that stretch where we were thinking we wanted to get the points total,” added Vanney. “There are a lot of things that it puts back in perspective quickly when you lose games like that.”
With eight games left in the season, Saturday’s match could be the tone setter Toronto are looking for.
“You hope it’s that type of thing,” said Jozy Altidore. “We played them a few weeks ago, after that game were able to put some wins together.”
That match, a 2-0 TFC win in Montreal, saw both Altidore, as usual, and Alejandro Pozuelo, playing in his first derby, find the back of the net.
It also provided a first glimpse of the derby to a pair of other newcomers.
“Yeah, I’ve played against Montreal before and it didn’t feel like that,” smiled Laryea. “Definitely you could feel the hatred and the passion between the two clubs. It was a very cool experience for me and a big three points for us as well.”
Jacob Shaffelburg felt it too, both physically on the end of biting tackles, and in the air.
“I like to go into every game the same way,” said the winger. “That one, it hit different. Everyone was talking it up way more than any other game we’ve played.”
“It was a lot of fun; having that many away fans there was crazy,” continued Shaffelburg. “It put a smile on my face when we ran out and [the Montreal] fans booed all of us coming on. It was an interesting experience. I’ve always seen that on TV, but when you’re out on the field and it’s you being booed it feels pretty cool I guess.”
Even in the weeks that have elapsed since then, the Impact have changed drastically: Remi Garde is gone, replaced by Wilmer Cabrera. Reinforcements in the form of Bojan Krkic, Lassi Lappalainen, and the return of Ballou Tabla on loan from Barcelona B have arrived.
But they are still Montreal.
“They will play the same: defend with a low block and go to counter,” foresaw Laurent Ciman, himself a former Impact defender. “The fast guys – [Orji] Okwonkwo, Lappalainen, Bojan, and [Max] Urruti – I don’t know if [Ignacio] Piatti will play, but if he plays, OK he’s quality, but we’re ready for that and to win this game.”
Piatti is listed as ‘out’ with an adductor injury, but stranger things than miraculous recoveries have happened in derbies. Don’t forget to measure.
“[Derbies] are for the fans. In Belgium it’s the same,” added Ciman. “We need to win this game.”
Saturday, the first of the three encounters, kicks off the series with Eastern Conference implications.
TFC are ready for it.
“After practice, a few guys came up to me, talking about how important it is to stay in tune every single play because these are must-win games, these aren’t like any other games,” relayed Shaffelburg. “These are games that we need to win to get in for playoffs.”
With the East Coast’s hockey loyalties occasionally split between Toronto and Montreal, Shaffelburg confirmed: “Nova Scotia is TFC. I’ve never been a fan of Montreal if I’m being honest.”
Then comes the two legs of the cup on September 18 in Montreal and September 25 in Montreal.
Toronto will be looking for a fourth-straight and their eighth overall. Montreal claims it would be their tenth, but they count the six they won before the advent of a proper tournament for the Canadian Championship, where they have won three.
“[Winning the Voyageurs Cup] means a lot,” said Morrow. “The club has shown that it is something they are invested in. We play strong lineups, we’ve dominated the competition historically. That’s something that we take pride in.”
And as for the Impact’s math?
“Definitely just the three,” grinned Morrow. “We still hold that title.”
Vanney is famously cool, never getting too high or too low, but even he takes losses against Montreal extra hard.
“Every loss hurts me,” began Vanney. “I see every game as an opportunity for three points or one point, or you take nothing."
“More personal because they’re Montreal? Yes, because the fans feel it more,” he continued. “There is an emotional boost to beating Montreal or a cost to losing. There’s a little extra in it. But in the end, especially right now, we need to pull together, go play this game for the three points, get the result to jump ourselves into it and put them behind us.”