There will be a special atmosphere at Olympic Stadium when the Montreal Impact faces Toronto FC in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference final on Tuesday night.
A anticipated crowd of more than 60,000 and the biggest meeting ever between the two Canadian clubs from rival cities could not make it anything less.
And how the two sides deal with the noise, the hard and bouncy artificial turf and the pressure-packed situation should have much to do with which team gains the advantage heading into the second leg of the two-game-aggregate goals series on Nov. 30 at BMO field in Toronto.
The series winner will become the first Canadian team to reach the MLS Cup final game on Dec. 10.
“We have a very experienced team,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said Monday. “Our guys have played in environments similar to this and I think it’s motivation one way or another.
“It doesn’t matter. Just to have that energy in the stands, whether they’re for you or against you, heightens your awareness and sharpness out here. I’ll let them rely on their experiences to guide them and just focus on their roles and responsibilities and who they are. They don’t have to be anything different whether there’s 30,000 or 60,000.”
Playing indoors a new experience
Facing Montreal indoors will be a new experience for most Toronto players, but midfielder Michael Bradley pointed out that he and striker Jozy Altidore played twice for the U.S. in the “Big O” at the 2007 under-20 World Cup, including a 1-1 tie with South Korea before a crowd of 55,800.
“We know the atmosphere is going to be amazing,” said Bradley, whose team got its first workout on the synthetic turf while Montreal has practised on it since last Thursday. “The field is the same for both teams and, ultimately, when you get to games that are this big, afterwards nobody’s talking about the field.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to play in a very big game.”
Montreal counters with a veteran squad — with nine of 11 starters age 30 or more — that has played in big games at Olympic Stadium before, especially in its run to the CONCACAF Champions League final in early 2015 when it lost in the final to Mexico’s Club American before 60,004.
“We’ve been here before in terms of the scale of the game, but we can also learn from that because we didn’t win that series against Club America,” said Montreal captain Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Que. “I don’t think we’ll be afraid or in awe of the 60,000, we’ll just try to use it as motivation because if we play well, the 60,000 will give us an extra push.”
TFC goes into the series as the favourite, based on a higher ranking in the regular season and its impressive 7-0 aggregate stomping of New York City in the conference semifinals. But Montreal also finished strong and knocked off the first-place New York Red Bulls 3-1 in the semifinals.
Sixth meeting this season
Toronto is also looking to avenge a 3-0 loss in Montreal in the knockout stage of playoffs in 2015, although off-season additions have made them a much stronger defensive side since then.
It will be the teams’ sixth meeting this year. They went 1-1-1 against each other in MLS play, while TFC beat Montreal 4-2 on aggregate in their two-game Amway Canadian Championship series in June.
There are few secrets between them.
Montreal thrives on playing tight defence at the back and then looking for quick counter attacking chances through gifted midfielder Ignacio Piatti and speedy winger Dominic Oduro. Matteo Mancosu has been dangerous as the lone forward, and 38-year-old Ivorian star Didier Drogba will be available as a second half substitute despite his aversion for artificial turf.
The Impact’s main task will be to contain TFC’s shifty midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, a five-foot-four waterbug who seems to pop up at any time out of nowhere to create scoring chances. The Italian is equally dangerous setting up big striker Altidore, while Bradley runs the show from the back of the midfield. There are also quality elements in Panamanian midfielder Armando Cooper and Toronto product Jonathan Osorio.
“Giovinco can be dangerous out of nothing,” said Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush. “Kind of like Nacho (Piatti).
“He can be dangerous because you lose track of where he is.”
Away goals are key
Away goals are key in aggregate goals series because they are the first tiebreaker, so Montreal won’t want to concede one.
Toronto would like to put at least one goal in the bank, but it isn’t essential considering they get to play the second game at home.
As Vanney put it: “We’d like to pick up a goal, but 0-0 wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”
Mostly, the teams just want to play. It will have been 16 days since their last game, although some were active on national team duty during last week’s FIFA break, including Bradley, Altidore and Montreal’s top defender Laurent Ciman.
The good part for both is that their squads are almost at full health. The bad part is that there may be some rust.
“The break wasn’t great for anybody — the league, Montreal or Toronto — but it’s reality,” said Bradley. “With the FIFA break there was no choice. And, in some ways, it gave both cities even more time to get excited.”