Not since the heyday of the NASL has Canadian club soccer had such a stage.
On Wednesday night before a record BMO Field crowd of some 36,000, Toronto FC looks to win and stay home to host the MLS Cup final. The Montreal Impact plan to defend their 3-2 aggregate lead and then head west to challenge the upstart Seattle Sounders for North America’s soccer supremacy.
Either way history will be made as Wednesday’s result will send a Canadian team to the MLS Cup for the first time since Toronto brought the league north of the border in 2007. The question is will it be wearing red or black and blue.
A win or tie works for Montreal. The slimmest of victories will advance Toronto.
“We feel very very good about the position we’re in,” Toronto captain Michael Bradley said Tuesday. “This is why you play. We have 90 minutes at home to get to a final.
“Opportunities like this aren’t coming around every day and I think we have a group of guys who understand that and who are ready to embrace the game and go for it and leave everything we have on the field.”
“(Wednesday) is a big day for the franchise and a big day for our players,” added Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
“A chance to make history,” said Montreal dangerman Ignacio Piatti.
Only the winner gets to do that. The loser will have to lick their wounds and rue missing a glorious opportunity.
The record BMO Field attendance is thanks to the temporary seats that were installed in the south end for Sunday’s Grey Cup. The CFL championship drew 33,421, which was described as capacity. The soccer configuration for the stadium allows more seating.
The first leg of the Eastern Conference final drew 61,004 at Olympic Stadium, tying the best attendance in Impact history.
Toronto’s record crowd is 47,658 for the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final against David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy in March 2012 at the Rogers Centre.
The MLS record for playoff attendance is 61,316 at the 2002 MLS Cup final at Gillette Stadium.
Back in 1979, the Vancouver Whitecaps drew 32,875 to Empire Stadium for Game 1 of their North American Soccer League conference championship with the New York Cosmos. Another 44,109 took in the second leg at Giants Stadium.
The Whitecaps then downed the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1 before 50,699 to win the Soccer Bowl.
Back then Bob Lenarduzzi, now Vancouver president, was a Whitecaps defender and heartthrob. English imports Rodney Marsh and Alan Ball added English star quality.
Sebastian Giovinco, whose US$7.12-million salary is bigger than that of the entire Montreal payroll according to MLS Players Union figures, is the man to watch today in a Toronto uniform.
He drew rough treatment in Game 1 from the Montreal defence and was unceremoniously dumped from behind three minutes into the game by fullback Hassoun Camara. Giovinco, a five-foot-four pitbull who is also a Picasso on the ball, was quick to look back – like a hockey player taking the number of the opponent who has just hammered into the boards.
Look for Giovinco to try to make a statement quickly, as he did in the second leg of the conference semifinal against New York City FC when he scored in the sixth minute to open the floodgates in a 5-0 win at Yankee Stadium. The Italian wizard scored a hat trick that night.
Like Giovinco, Bradley and fellow TFC designated player Jozy Atidore relish the big stage, according to Vanney.
“For those guys, that’s the reason they returned back to this league and to this franchise, they wanted this moment and the opportunity to play the big game, the opportunity to try to get to a final and the opportunity to try to ultimately win a final. That’s what they here for and what they signed up for.
“This is the moment and I know they’re looking forward to it … They’re ready to go.”
The Montreal defence will keep a close eye on Giovinco again and they won’t be wearing kid gloves. The Impact like to play their fullbacks in, allowing centre backs Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera to bunch up on attackers.
Toronto may look to start Will Johnson, sacrificing the offensive artistry of Amando Cooper or Jonathan Osorio to stabilize the midfield. And don’t put it past Vanney to change up formation to throw a monkey wrench in Montreal’s preparations.
Impact coach Mauro Biello did just that in Game 1, by playing Canadian midfielder Patrice Bernier in an advanced position.
“We need to expect everything and we need to prepare for everything,” Biello said. “In the end, yes we have that (one-goal) advantage. For us it’s about being ready for what Toronto can give us. And at the same time preparing the team so that we can unbalance them.
“In the end, the message to my team is obviously when we don’t have the ball to limit their space and time. And when we do have the ball, it’s about believing that we can score at any moment.”
The Impact have usually done that on the counter-attack with Piatti and former TFC forward Dominic Oduro marauding down the flanks and Italian striker Matteo Mancoso making runs down the middle.
Vanney noted that most of Montreal’s goals against his team came on three or fewer passes.
There are few secrets between the two. They have played each other seven times already this season, including the pre-season, Amway Canadian Championship, regular season and playoffs. Each team has two wins with three draws.
Montreal’s win last week felt like a loss, given the Impact squandered a 3-0 lead. Still it was only the third defeat Toronto had suffered in 19 games (11-3-5) dating back to mid-July.
Toronto players seemed unfazed by entering the game a goal down, saying their goal is to win every game.
“If you’re going to win the game, you need to score a goal … Really it’s a normal game in that aspect,” said goalkeeper Clint Irwin.
History is against Toronto, however.
Since the two-legged format was adopted in 2012, no team has come back from a loss to win the Conference championship history. The conference championships were single-elimination games from 2003 to 2011.