TORONTO – Since 2008 when the first tournament proper for the Voyageurs Cup began, the Canadian Championship has held a special place on the soccer calendar.
There is something about those midweek games under the lights, teams battling to be the best in the country, that makes the moments sweeter, the memories more vivid. The world over cup competitions are beloved.
When Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact meet tonight at BMO Field in the second leg of the 2019 edition only one can emerge as champions.
With a 1-0 aggregate lead following the first leg, the Impact have the advantage, but back home, in front of their fans, t
They have every reason to given the recent run of form the side has been on.
That loss in Montreal last week was the only defeat Toronto has experienced in their last 11 games. And Saturday’s 1-1 draw against run-away league-leaders LAFC was heralded as the best game the side has even played by none other than Greg Vanney.
Asked if it was a matter of the performances building to that point or something about the magnitude of the stage, Vanney admitted: “It was a little bit of both.”
“In MLS play – we didn’t play our best in Montreal – we are taking good steps forward in terms of our play, our performances, our grittiness, both defensively and offensively, the speed of play, have all been coming around,” listed Vanney. “Then you add our group is experienced and mature. They know this point in the season the games are all a bit bigger. You go into the league-leading team’s stadium, who is a team we all respect a great deal, and, if anyone pays attention to this club, it’s the biggest games that get the most attention from guys.”
“That’s been the case, whether it’s Champions League, playoffs the last couple years – last year not withstanding – when the environment gets bigger, our players find a new level of concentration and that came out,” he continued. “A lot of respect, a nice environment to play in – it felt like a playoff game, like a big game – and the guys answered it. My challenge to them, is, very candidly, we have to respect every game, environment and team the same way we respected LAFC and if we do, we can keep taking these steps forward and go a long way in the playoffs.”
When the stakes get highest, Toronto has excelled. Wednesday night, with a trophy on the line against their beloved rivals will be no different.
The Canadian Championship has thrown massive moments each way in the history between these two clubs.
In the inaugural edition of 2008, Montreal, yet to have joined MLS, won that first trophy and celebrated at BMO Field. Toronto would have their revenge the next year when Dwayne De Rosario led the Reds to a 6-1 win, the Miracle in Montreal, to steal the trophy from the watching Vancouver Whitecaps, in attendance for a USL match a day later, kicking off a run of four-straight titles for TFC.
In 2013, Toronto took a 2-0 advantage into Montreal from the first leg of the semifinals, only to be humbled away, losing 6-0. The Impact would beat TFC in the final the next season en route to a second-straight championship and would knockout TFC in the semifinal stage in 2015 on away goals as well, though Vancouver would lift the cup in the end.
That was an interesting series.
Montreal took the first leg 1-0 at home, Toronto would level in the second leg through Jozy Altidore, only for Kenny Cooper to put Montreal back in the driver’s seat. A pair of goals from Benoit Cheyrou and Sebastian Giovinco after half-time had TFC in control, but Dominic Oduro would score in the 84th minute to doom the Reds.
That was Vanney’s first Canadian Championship and the last time Toronto did not emerge victorious from a series in the competition.
A 4-2 win in the first leg of the semifinals in 2016 was enough to see TFC past the Impact and in 2017, just the second time the two had met in the finals, on the heels of that epic 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final series, was an instant classic with Giovinco’s 95th minute winner sending the BMO faithful into raptures.
That was Vanney’s favourite, but only by a slim margin.
“The last Montreal series here, that was epic in the finish, was the best,” said the coach. “Also Will Johnson’s.”
“That finish was almost as memorable because it was literally like someone burst the balloon in the building. It went from being incredibly loud, almost obnoxiously loud, kind of a ‘Haha, we got this,’ to the ball being in the back of the net and it went dead silent,” remembered Vanney. “When you’re on the road, that’s the greatest noise, the lack of noise, ever.”
Vanney has credited that 2016 Johnson moment as the catalyst for all that has come since.
It was Alex Bono’s favourite.
“For me it’s 2016, long, long time ago,” smiled Bono. “The second leg of that final in Vancouver, the Will Johnson goal that brought home the first of this stretch. That was my first start with the first team, so that moment will always be near and dear to my heart. The feeling after that game I’ve felt after each game the past few years in this tournament.”
“No matter what people say, whether there is only three MLS teams or whatever, when you get to the final, it doesn’t matter how you got there or who you faced on your way,” continued Bono. “It’s two games, it’s head-to-head, teams that typically don’t like each other, especially when you play Montreal.”
Wednesday night promises more memorable moments.
“This tournament sets up to be exciting,” promised Vanney. “We’ve got to go for it on Wednesday. We’re down a goal. We’ve either got to get two or we’ve got to get three and so on. It’s a game that sets up for us to have to attack.”