Brian Straus previews the first-round MLS playoff matchup between Canadian foes Montreal Impact and Toronto FC.
Two years ago, the Montreal Impact offered up a playoff performance that probably was the least poised in MLS history. That 3-0 knockout round loss in Houston remains the only entry on the club’s postseason resume. Toronto FC, of course, somehow managed to miss the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons in the league.
On Thursday, one of those two rivals, whose MLS existence has been marked by far more upheaval than success, will turn the page and win a playoff game for the first time. They meet at Stade Saputo in a winner-take-all, Eastern Conference knockout round contest (7 p.m. ET; UniMás, TSN1, TSN4, TSN5, RDS, MLS Live). It’s a rematch of the Impact’s 2-1 “Decision Day” victory, and it sends the survivor to the MLS Cup quarterfinals. If Montreal wins, it will meet the Columbus Crew. If visiting TFC pulls off the mild upset, it will face the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls.
Both clubs can thank a key foreign addition for this opportunity. It isn’t easy to find high-profile signings at any point in MLS history who’ve had the immediate, transcendent impact of Sebastian Giovinco or Didier Drogba.
The former may just have compiled the best regular season in the league has seen, leading the pack with 22 goals and 16 assists. He scored or directly set up 38 of Toronto’s 58 MLS goals.
The latter joined Montreal in August and has been unstoppable since, scoring 11 times in nine starts (11 games total) and winning the last two MLS Player of the Month honors.
One will continue his season this weekend. Here’s a closer look at the two sides in what will be the biggest game in Canada’s MLS history.
3. Montreal Impact (15-13-6, 51 points)
While on its historic run to the CONCACAF Champions League finals, the Impact were digging a bit of a hole for themselves in the Eastern standings. Montreal fell to Club América at the final hurdle in late April and didn’t win its first MLS match until more than two weeks later. The good news was that games in hand left the Impact time to catch up.
That didn’t happen as fast as the club would have liked. In late August, following an 0-4-2 stretch that featured back-to-back losses to the Vancouver Whitecaps (in the Canadian Championship finals) and TFC, coach Frank Klopas was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Mauro Biello.
"He trusts his players. He’s confident. He wants us to play and not be scared of the other teams,” defender Hassoun Camara told The Canadian Press. “He brings the confidence to do something great on the field and I hope that he will stay a long time, like Alex Ferguson.”
Biello, a Montreal native and long-time Impact player, altered the tone and brought a couple out-of-favor players back into the fold.
Drogba changed the team, and Montreal was on its way. The Impact are 7-2-2 since the coaching switch and 5-0-0 at home.
While Drogba works wonders up front, Montreal has posted the conference’s second-best defensive record. Evan Bush, who was suspended for the CCL decider, has emerged as an elite MLS goalkeeper and Belgian center back Laurent Ciman is a Defender of the Year candidate. The Impact have yielded just seven goals in the past 10 matches.
Montreal and TFC have met five times this year in league and cup play. The home team has won each of the five.
6. Toronto FC (15-15-4, 49 points)
The regular season record is the best in the club’s tortured history, but TFC is in the playoffs only because MLS concluded that finishing outside the top half the conference shouldn’t disqualify you from playing for the title. If not for the playoff field's expansion to 12 teams, Toronto would be sitting home again.
Despite the additions of Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, Toronto remains a work in progress. There isn’t an obvious approach or starting 11. For much of the season, coach Greg Vanney has been forced to deal with international call-ups and injuries while trying to plug holes in a leaky back line. TFC is the only playoff team without a winning record and had a defense that was level with New York City FC's and the Chicago Fire's as the worst in MLS.
Toronto yielded 58 goals this season. Only one other playoff team, Columbus, conceded more than 50.
That being said, the Reds still finished only two points behind Montreal, a team it knows well. Another good sign—Altidore has goals in each of his past three starts.
It’s been a long, long road for Toronto. There’s plenty over the past season, and the past decade, that might impinge on its collective confidence. Bradley said this week that it’s more important to focus on the fact that the Reds finally are where they want to be.
“It’s a big game. These are the big games that, when you start in January, you talk about playing in, so we’re excited,” Bradley told reporters. “Going on the road can be difficult. But having said that, stats are for you guys. We feel very confident about where we are, the position that we’re in [and] the chance we have in front of us.”
Key Matchup: Drogba vs. Toronto’s center backs
If the Ivorian icon has free reign in TFC’s penalty area, it won’t matter what Giovinco conjures at the other end.
“We’ve got to make it harder than that,” Vanney said Sunday after Drogba scored twice. “He’s obviously proven to be one of the greatest goal scorers in the game and it was just way too easy in the box, he was just too loose.”
Damien Perquis (hamstring) has missed the past two games and isn’t expected to play Thursday. In his place, Ahmed Kantari has started alongside Josh Williams. Kantari, a French-born, Moroccan international, joined TFC at the end of July on a free transfer from RC Lens. Williams started the season with NYCFC and has been a TFC regular for only the past two months.
They’ll be the ones tasked with slowing down Drogba.
“He has changed their team,” Bradley said of Drogba. “There’s no two ways about that, and so we’ll go into a big game knowing, like always, in order to give yourself the best chance to win you have to do a job and make the game as difficult as possible for their best players.”