TORONTO – They don't get any bigger than this.
When Toronto FC line up against the Montreal Impact at BMO Field on Saturday night for an MLS Rivalry Week clash with the Canadian National Exhibition in full display, much will be on the line.
Pride, bragging rights, and, most importantly, three points, as Toronto looks to close the gap between themselves and their foes, who currently hold one of the playoff spots TFC are chasing.
“It's a derby against our hated rivals,” said Drew Moor. “We know how important it is to the players, the club, the fans, the entire organization. We'll play it like it's a cup final. It's a good opportunity for us to get ourselves going; I can't think of a better way. Guys were buzzing, we're locked in and ready to go.”
With 10 games left in the 2018 MLS regular season, the window is closing. Saturday is the first of six home matches remaining.
“We still have the ability to control our fate if we can get on a good run,” said Greg Vanney, leaning on a mantra he has repeated many times over the years. “It's one game at a time; starts tomorrow against Montreal: our rivals, at home.”
“It's going to be an energy-filled game within the stadium and on the field,” continued Vanney. “If you're not ready to play a game like that in the circumstances that we are, then we're in trouble, but everybody is ready to go. The intensity today in training was one of the best days this year. Guys are looking forward to it; they understand what is on the line.”
Cliched though it is, every game now is a cup final: familiar territory for TFC.
“Of course, [they are],” relished Moor. “We have to embrace the position we've put ourselves in: take it one game at a time and be excited for Saturday night.”
Standing in their path is the old enemy: Montreal.
With so many classic encounters over the years, especially the last few seasons, it is somewhat odd that the two have not met since a 1-0 Impact win at the Olympic Stadium back in March, one of the first matches of Remi Garde's tenure as Montreal coach.
“We haven't seen them in a while, which is strange, because I feel like we usually see them every couple weeks,” smiled Moor. “A lot of changes in their roster, in their formation.”
“We want to set the tone with our play, our possession, creating opportunities, finishing attacks – with shots, with passes, with crosses – getting after them,” explained Moor. “They'll be organized defensively, look to spring on the counter.”
“[Ignacio] Piatti is a very dangerous guy, who, if he gets out into open space, is good with the ball himself, can find guys like [Matteo] Mancosu,” detailed Moor. “And they've added some guys who are dangerous as well. We expect them to go for three points.”
Piatti leads the side with 12 goals and nine assists on the season. Off-season addition Saphir Taider is second with five goals and four assists, while Jeisson Vargas, who scored the deflected game-winner in March, has four goals to his name. Mancosu has netted three times in 2018.
Having struggled early, losing 10 of their first 13 matches, Garde and his side have adapted since, taking points in all but three of the next 13 matches to push themselves into post-season consideration.
“Any time you have a new coach coming into the league, he's sizing up his players, what the league looks like, finding the best system and way to play with his players,” said Vanney. “Remi has taken the first portion of the season to figure out what that looks like.”
“It seems like they found some stable ground,” continued Vanney. “They've returned back to being more of a counterattacking team, which makes sense with the guys that they have. They're a good team in possession, but a really dangerous [one] in the transition and very organized defensively, which has been Montreal in their best days: that's who they are.”
And with the match on Toronto's home ground that tendency could be even more at play.
“Their strength will be to keep things tight, close up spaces on us, win balls and try to open us up,” forecast Vanney. “Doesn't mean that they won't ever press, have their stretches of possession, but they're most dangerous in those moments when Piatti can have a little space to get up on the ball, get running and facing forward, get guys in one-on-one situations with space.”
“Mancosu same thing: he's better off in open space, where he can run and try to exploit space in behind. It's their group and the nature of what they're best at,” added Vanney. “It's not that they're a one-trick pony; they are best at the counterattack game.”
To aid in managing that threat, Toronto will be buoyed by the return of Moor to full fitness.
The veteran defender saw action off the bench against NYCFC and San Jose, but has declared himself ready for the full 90 on Saturday.
“I do believe he is ready to go,” said Vanney. “We've slowly brought him back into the fold, he's had a full week of training, played 30-plus minutes a couple times, feels good, no responses physically to anything that has been put in front of him. And he's smart player, understands what he need to do and how to do that in an efficient way.”
For Moor, it has been a long road back to health.
“I don't think I realized how major [the injury] was when it first happened until I started to work my way back in and didn't feel like myself,” said Moor. “I feel as fresh as I have in a long time. That's exciting for me, especially with such important matches coming up.”
His impact on Toronto's organization is immeasurable.
“What he brings is huge,” said Vanney. “Of all of our guys, he's the one that plays most outside of himself, which is communicating to the guys next to him, seeing things coming, reading the game and making sure that everybody is on the same page quickly.”
“There are few voices as loud as Drew,” remarked Vanney, explaining some of the less-appreciated parts of the game at which Moor excels. “It's not what you see with Chris [Mavinga]: an incredible capacity to make plays, track people down, and tackle hard. Drew is the antithesis: everything is dealt with before it happens, that's where Drew's value really comes in.”
In Toronto, the CNE heralds the end of summer. In MLS, the grind is coming to an end as the playoff race heats up.
Ten games remain.
Where some would advise these are desperate times that call for desperate measures, both Moor and Vanney stress a more considered tact.
“I'm not a desperation person, [never] carried myself that way. There is a level of urgency that we have to be aware of,” noted Vanney. “These guys know, they're experienced enough to know where we are. We've talked for far too long about not having room to make mistakes, that gap is essentially closed. It needs to be heightened concentration; professionalism.”
“We've lost one game in our last nine (all competitions),” pointed out Vanney. “We've played decent soccer, the key is execution: in front of the goal, around goal, when we get chances, and defensively.”
Added Moor: “The word I like is urgency.”
“At times we have to be desperate, go for what we want,” said Moor, but he emphasizes the need, “to be good with the details, the simple passes, the simple touches, everything at a quicker pace. Not frantic, not out of control, but urgent.”