TORONTO – Whatever the year, whatever the competition, no matter the year, for Toronto FC, all roads lead through Montreal.
Since TFC first met the Montreal Impact way back in 2008 in the inaugural edition of the Canadian Championship, the two have had many battles on the pitch.
Whether one's favourite moment is 2009's Dwayne De Rosario inspired Miracle in Montreal, Torsten Frings' thunderous free-kick in 2012, Joe Bendik helping Felipe up in 2014, Benoit Cheyrou's late header last November, or Sebastian Giovinco's final second heroics most recently, whenever these two meet, memories are made.
“It's the way it's come to be,” said Justin Morrow on Thursday. “They're such a big rival, a team that we look forward to playing, no matter what's on the line. Since I've been here it's grown bigger and bigger. It's going to be an exciting match.”
This year has proved no different, as June's Canadian Championship can attest, but some mischief from the schedule makers has the two foes facing off three times over the span of the seven weeks as the season builds to a climax, ratcheting up the tension even more.
“MLS loves to do that, don't they,” chuckled Morrow. “This time of year, the games get heightened in so many ways, then you add that rivalry into it and it makes a special event. The fact that we play them three times is going to be difficult, but also great. They're fighting for playoff chances, we're in a different situation. We have to be aggressive; this is our chance to put them out of the playoffs.”
Added Steven Beitashour, who has felt the brunt of the clash more than most, working back from the injury suffered in the last contest: “You would like to spread it out if possible. It's a little strange with [so few] games to go that three of them are against one team.”
The current strand of rivalry stretches back to October 2015, when the two met twice over five days, first in the final match of the regular season and then in the Knockout Round of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.
A Montreal win in the former saw them host the latter, where three first half goals in a 21-minute spell ended Toronto's first-ever playoff appearance prematurely.
Morrow, one of those on the pitch that day, reflected on that turn of events: “They knew more about themselves than we did. Going back, analyzing, they were a team that was in form and had an identity; we were still finding ours.”
“Since then we've done a good job to progress and get better,” noted Morrow. “But the most important thing is we have an identity now.”
That thread picks up early in the 2016 season when a Sebastian Giovinco brace in Montreal gives TFC a modicum of revenge in April.
June's Canadian Championship series, where Toronto took the first leg 4-2 – braces from Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton before Michael Salazar and Didier Drogba made it interesting at the end – and saw out the second 0-0, with Montreal shown a red card in each, papered over some wounds.
“[They were] scrappy,” recalled Morrow of that series. “The teams came together [after a red card, exchanging pleasantries]. That's what it seems to be: every time we step on the field something happens. There's that little bit of emotion there. We try to keep it controlled and use it to our advantage.”
That little bit of je ne sais quoi only spurs on the action.
“That's why it's a rivalry match, there is a little something extra there,” smiled Morrow. “Whether it be emotional, historical, irrational.... It's there; it's in the air, in each player. It shows on the pitch.”
Ignacio Piatti would bite back for the Impact, scoring the only goal in a Montreal win at BMO Field, exactly one year to the day of Sunday's meeting. The third meeting of the regular season would end 2-2 in Montreal – Piatti netting both for the Impact, Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts for TFC. Honours even on the year, or so one could be led to believe.
Nobody could have predicted what lay in store for November over two legs when the two met in the Eastern Conference Final with glory and a spot in the MLS Cup Final, as well as the honour of being the first Canadian side to reach that stage, on the line.
“I've been around MLS since it started,” said Drew Moor after training on Thursday. “I don't think you'll find a better playoff series than what you saw last season. It was unbelievable to be a part of, an amazing spectacle. To play in moments like that is the reason I get out of bed in the morning. To come out on top, have it allow us to host MLS Cup, it was something to be a part of.”
The Impact took a quick 3-0 lead in the home leg, after a delay due to measurement problems. Shades of 2015 all over again, but Altidore and Michael Bradley pulled TFC back into the series in the second half.
And then came the second leg.
Dominic Oduro opens the scoring, giving Montreal a two-goal cushion as well as a precious away goal, but Armando Cooper responds and Altidore adds another before half-time, tilting the series in Toronto's favour.
But Piatti, always a danger, responds at the start of the second half, wrenching it back towards the Impact. Then Nick Hagglund tees up extra time with a towering header, setting the stage for more drama.
Cheyrou scores the winner, an unforgettable header, sending BMO Field into raptures, and Ricketts puts the icing on the cake a few minutes later.
“It was such a roller coaster, physically, emotionally,” said Moor. “We felt like the entire time from before it started to the second that it ended that we were going to win. It didn't matter what it took. We gave up more goals than we would have wanted to, fell behind 3-0 in the first leg. But we felt like when we needed to score, we were going to be able to and that we were the better team, were going to come out on top.”
“You can point to a bunch of reasons why we won, or how we were able to put it to our side; they can say [why they should have],” continued Moor. “We were too strong, we knew it was our time. We all believed in that; that was the most powerful thing.”
Said Morrow: “My time with San Jose was pretty incredible [too], had a lot of games that we came back from, late winners. But over a two-leg series, nothing like that. It was a great effort by our team.”
There were lessons there too, which will be relevant for this upcoming triple-header.
“We can look back at a lot of things that we could have done better in that series,” added Morrow. “We have to be on top of our game and sharp. They can hit us at any moment.”
The stakes raised even further, the two met twice in a week this June in the Canadian Championship again, to determine who would hoist the Voyageurs Cup in 2017. A spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, or at least another match to decide so, dangled in the balance.
A 1-1 draw in the first leg in Montreal – Matteo Mancosu and Altidore exchanging goals – set the stage for a tense second leg, where once more extra time loomed after Jean-Yves Tabla and Giovinco scored, or at least so it seemed.
A late red card to Patrice Bernier and a 95th minute strike from Giovinco, courtesy a perfect set-up from Raheem Edwards, clinched the title for TFC, much to the Impact's chagrin.
“They were close games,” said Moor. “It's a classic rivalry, it doesn't matter where each team is in the standings, you're always going to get each other's best. We got one up on them in the Canadian Championship. We felt we deserved it, were the better team. It was a big trophy for us.”
Morrow, away with the US National Team at the time, took in the action from afar: “I was watching on my computer, screaming like everyone else when Seba scored that goal.”
“When it keeps happening with the same teams, there's a little something there,” added Morrow of the special ingredient that creates such memorable exchanges. “I could tell sitting in Nashville watching from my laptop that the boys were in it, the other team was in it, that's going to be there [on Sunday].”
That emotion can at times risk boiling over. Beitashour seems a lightning rod for it, it was he who was flattened by Callum Mallace, drawing a red card in one of the three regular season meetings in 2016, and who was on the receiving end of the thunderous clash that lacerated his pancreas in June, an injury from which he is just now returning.
Despite, or perhaps, because of such moments, Beitashour considers the Eastern Conference Final and the second leg of the 2016 Canadian Championship some of the most memorable nights of his career.
But TFC need not face such a foe alone. They will have fans of their own on Sunday, in their corner, cheering them on. Montreal, after all, is just a hop-skip-and-a-jump, at least in Canadian terms, just down the 401.
“The way our fans travel and support us, you can't overstate how important it is and what a difference it makes for us,” said Bradley on Tuesday. “When we need life and energy, a little more to push us on they give that to us.”
Even the new guy knows what’s at stake.
“[The rivalry with Montreal] was the first thing I knew,” said Nicolas Hasler, who has scored in the last two matches. “It's a big game; will be a lot of fight.”
Once more, all roads lead through Montreal.
“That's what makes it fun. Our rivals are always in our way,” smiled Moor. “Since I've been here: big games; they've meant a lot. We have them three times at the end of the season and it's big for both teams. They're trying to maintain a playoff spot, we're trying to stay on top.”
“When you can play against your rivals in big moments, in big games, that's when you want to express yourself, want to leave a mark on this league, on your team,” added Moor. “Sunday is going to be a big game.”