TORONTO – The fun keeps coming.
Toronto FC will play their fourth match of September on Wednesday night when they head to Stade Saputo for the first leg of the 2019 Canadian Championship Final against the Montreal Impact.
With the MLS regular season nearing conclusion, TFC will play a further three matches this month before October’s Decision Day heralds the end. Following the first leg the side will cross the continent for a mouth-watering contest against league-leading LAFC on Saturday, then the second leg against the Impact goes at BMO Field in a week’s time, before the month closes away to the Chicago Fire on September 29.
All told, TFC are in the midst of a gauntlet of seven matches in some 22 days.
Three in, the side has gone unbeaten, winning twice and drawing away to NYCFC, extending their current undefeated run to nine games in all competitions.
“We’ll take it one game at a time,” said Greg Vanney on Tuesday. “I have a vision of what I would like the next three games to look like, but that’s going to depend on some of the feedback we’re seeing in the recovery.”
“Wednesday is really the first half of a bigger game and Saturday is a tough game – you have to go to the West Coast, play a team like LAFC, but we want to hold our position at fourth and put a little pressure on Atlanta [United FC],” he added. “Trying to manage all those is the challenge.”
With the three points from Sunday’s win over the Colorado Rapids at BMO Field, TFC thrust themselves into fourth place in the East and into possession of a home playoff date. They were ‘huge points.’
“They put us in that category that it’s going to be tough to catch us from a pure playoff position,” said Vanney. “We want to hold our position and win this championship.”
“How we manage that – it’s so late in the season, you want to come out as healthy as possible,” considered the coach. “Everybody is scrapping to get on the field, they want to play, everybody wants to be out there, but it’s our job to manage this situation appropriately with a bigger view of things. Every player wants to be on the field when championships are on the line. We’re going to try to keep ourselves healthy, fresh, and attacking each of these games one at a time.”
Up first is Montreal; as TFC captain Michael Bradley said, “there’s something in the air” whenever these two meet.
Toronto has won the two league meetings between the sides this season – 2-0 in July and 2-1 in August.
“Being a part of two of them, it’s pretty eye opening how hard we go,” smiled Jacob Shaffelburg of his introduction to the bad blood that is the derby.
The rookie expects no different this time around: “They’re in the final of a competition. Any team in the final has got to bring their best game. Whoever wins this goes to the Champions League, so I imagine they’re going to come in as hard as they can.”
The Impact enter the match with their season very much hanging in the balance.
A 1-0 home loss on Saturday against Eastern Conference basement dwellers FC Cincinnati combined with a draw between the New England Revolution and Orlando City SC sees Montreal three points out of the final playoff berth with three matches remaining.
It was a second-straight home defeat under new coach Wilmer Cabrera. Montreal have won just one of their last seven matches during this crucial period of the year. The Voyageurs Cup may be their only chance at redeeming a disappointing year.
“I suspect they’ll come in with full intention to win the game, set themselves up to come to Toronto and give themselves a chance to win,” forecast Vanney. “Our job is to make it really difficult on them. We don’t have to win the tournament tomorrow, we need to make sure they get nothing going, try to snatch a goal away and stay solid defensively.”
Having faced the reinforced Impact, including the relatively recent additions of Bojan Krkic, Ballou Tabla, and Lassi Lappalainen, at the end of August under Cabrera, Vanney has an idea of what to expect: “The players are generally the same, [Ignacio] Piatti is in, a guy you always have to be aware of.”
The question, according to Vanney, is: “How much of the ball they want versus how much they’re willing to concede and allow us to have the ball, try to play on the counter? We’ll see. But at home they’re going to want to push the game a little bit, see if they can find a way to get on top of this competition.”
The value to winning the Canadian Championship is multifaceted.
There is the Voyageurs Cup itself, the pride of being national champions. There is entrance to the Concacaf Champions League as Canada’s sole representative next season as well. And then there are the intangibles, the lift and experience such an achievement brings for that what comes next.
The 2016 title over Vancouver Whitecaps FC was the first trophy lifted in the Vanney era.
“The way that we won that one, with Will [Johnson]’s shot in the dying minutes, where we were losing with a minute left in the game, on the road, to then turn that, emotionally that just gave us an enormous boost as an organization to take another step forward to achieve some of the things that we were able to achieve,” recalled Vanney. “It doesn’t matter what the competition is, whenever there is a trophy on the line and the title ‘championship’ there’s a different feeling to that.”
What followed was successive MLS Cup Final runs, an MLS Cup itself, more Voyageurs Cups, and the run to the Concacaf Champions League Final.
Another domestic title this year would be Toronto’s fourth-straight and eighth overall.
“The Canadian Championship is something we’ve valued always,” said Vanney. “Before I was here I heard stories about [it], some of the championships before. It’s important that in Canada we are viewed as the top club. We want to be that, first and foremost, in addition to win North America through the MLS Cup and things like that. We want to be the team that people follow.”
For some this will be their first final.
“It’s pretty crazy. I didn’t expect it to come this soon, certainly with TFC I expect nothing less,” said Shaffelburg. “But for me to be here with them and helping along the way, it’s been unbelievable.”
For Bradley, it will not, but as the season builds to a crescendo the captain is pleased with how a strange, choppy season has come around.
“Now, as we’ve been able to find consistency, in terms of who is on the field, what we’re all about, the way we play, we feel good about it,” said Bradley. “It’s not been perfect, that’s not to say there aren’t things that can’t keep getting better. We know that as the games get more important, as the games get bigger, we have to continue to raise our level, but there’s a confidence in the group.”
“We want to make sure that we take that to Montreal and then to LA on Saturday night. These are two big games,” he continued. “The biggest games are still to be played. It doesn’t matter whether you are LAFC with the points that they have, with the position that they’re in, or a team right on the bubble, in terms of getting in, but the reality is the same: the biggest games are still to come. We want to feel like when those games come, we’re at our best.”