There’s nothing like a playoff meeting with a trip to the MLS Cup final on the line to heat up the rivalry between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC.
The opening leg of the two-game, total-goals Eastern Conference final on Nov. 22 will be the sixth meeting of the year between the clubs from Canada’s two largest cities, whose fans already trade nasty chants.
But this game, and the return leg Nov. 30 in Toronto, will be their biggest showdown since Montreal joined MLS in 2012.
“It’s Toronto-Montreal, so I think the hatred is built in from the start,” Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush said Friday. “You don’t have to play them six times to figure that out.
“We play them a lot, whether it’s regular season, Canadian Cup and now the playoffs, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. You want to play in big rivalry games. Regardless of what people say, there’s going to be a different feel to it knowing we’re playing Toronto FC in a conference final, as opposed to Columbus or New York or whoever.”
The winner will play in the championship game Dec. 10 against either Seattle or Colorado.
Last year’s rout to Impact still fresh
The rivalry started to pick up last year when Toronto made the playoffs for the first time in nine MLS seasons only to be routed 3-0 in the single-game opening round in Montreal. It was a setback TFC players have not forgotten.
“It’s a pain in our heart and our mind,” TFC midfielder Benoit Cheyrou said this week.
Veteran defender Drew Moor, who joined Toronto in the off-season as a free agent from Colorado, did not have to wait long to learn of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry.
“It’s very evident around here how this whole organization and certainly the fanbase feels about Montreal,” Moor said in February during pre-season in Florida. “In fact my Twitter feed, when I first came over, was filled with (fans saying) ‘OK, No. 1, we hate Montreal.”
Both teams full of confidence
Both went into this season confident they could challenge for the championship, and both backed it up by battling their way up to their conference final showdown. Both won their first round matches easily and then upset higher seeds in the conference semifinals, with Montreal ousting the first-place New York Red Bulls 3-1 on aggregate and TFC swamping second-place New York City FC 7-0.
Toronto held a 2-1-2 edge in head-to-head meetings with Montreal this season, including a 4-2 aggregate win in Amway Canadian Championship play in June.
On April 23, TFC put on a clinic of defence and quick strike scoring in a 2-0 victory in Montreal, but the Impact repaid the favour with a 1-0 win at BMO Field on Aug. 27, their first-ever victory in Toronto. The teams played to a 2-2 draw in the regular-season rubber match Oct. 16 in Montreal.
No ‘hate’ between players
The Impact had a player sent off in three consecutive games. There was a scuffle when Patrice Bernier was shown the red card for a nasty tackle in Cup play in Toronto, a head butt by Lucas Ontivero in the return leg, and more bad blood when Montreal’s Calum Mallace bodychecked Steven Beitashour in Montreal’s lone win.
Even so, Bush insists “hate” between the teams shouldn’t be a part of the discussion.
“C’mon man, it’s not like that,” said Bush. “We’re fully aware of the rivalry and the hatred between the cities and the fans but a lot of us have played against each other for different teams for many years.
“To say there’s a hatred just because he’s wearing a certain jersey doesn’t resonate with me.”
There is sure to be plenty of emotion and atmosphere for the matches. Ticket sales for the first leg in the domed Olympic Stadium passed 50,000 on Friday and a sellout of more than 60,000 is quite possible.