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Gareth Wheeler

TSN Analyst and Radio Host

|Archive

Rivalry has become one of the most overused words in sport. In the non-stop competition for attention in an oversaturated marketplace, billing a matchup as a rivalry creates a hook. It’s supposed to pull you in, delivering genuine dislike and a game with greater stakes.  

This past spring, the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs matchup was called a budding rivalry. It’s laughable. Two teams from different divisions that have played in one first-round playoff series? Come on. No chance.

The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in baseball. Manchester United and Liverpool in the Premier League. The Battle of Alberta in the NHL. These are legit rivalries, built on a solid foundation of hostile competition, geography, division alignment and fan angst.

As far as Heineken Rivalry Week in Major League Soccer is concerned, one contest stands above the rest: Toronto FC versus the Montreal Impact is the hottest thing the MLS has cooking. This rivalry isn’t manufactured; it’s real, it’s heated and it has become a must-watch event on the North American sporting calendar. It may be a new rivalry, but it’s true as they come.

A few years back, Toronto FC was struggling to find their legs in MLS and the Impact were still part of the A-League. A natural rivalry between the two Canadian cities has always existed, where politics, language, and hockey have made for tasty Canadian competition. So upon Montreal’s arrival in MLS there was more to the matches, despite the quality on the field of play not being up to standard.

The fans could journey to road games by the hundreds or thousands, making for a special dynamic in a sport where atmosphere is made by travelling support. It’s a challenge in North America to capture environments similar to the footballing culture of Europe, South America and beyond, where it’s much easier and cheaper to travel to away matches. A trip down the 401 makes this matchup more accessible than most.

The fans play a huge role in the heated nature of the rivalry. Both sides have received negative press for less-than-desirable behaviour in the crowd. Not to excuse the lewd and inappropriate behaviour, but it’s bound to happen as the stakes are raised and the on-field tension reaches a fever pitch. The supporters have done their part from the get-go. The turning point on the field came less than two years ago.

It was October 2015, and Toronto FC had qualified for the MLS playoffs for the first time. It was an important accomplishment for the club after years of despair, and was supposed to send a message to Toronto and beyond that times had changed. TFC played the Impact in the last game of the season at Stade Saputo, before travelling back to Montreal mid-week for a first-round playoff matchup. It’s difficult enough to play a team twice in a week, let alone in the biggest game in club history. What played out over the course of four days was nothing short of a disaster for Toronto FC.

It started on MLS Decision Day. TFC was leading 1-0, setting up what would have been a home playoff game and a third- place finish in the Eastern Conference. It was all for naught, as Didier Drogba’s second-half brace sunk the Reds 2-1, giving Montreal the home playoff date and pushing TFC back to finish in the sixth and final playoff spot. It was a massive letdown for a Toronto team showing incredible potential in attack, but sorely lacking at the back.

Montreal was tactically, emotionally and physically superior in the playoff game, playing TFC off the pitch. The 3-0 final flattered the visitors. The Impact were deserved victors, and TFC was left with much to ponder.  

Bill Manning had just joined the club as president, and made it clear the performance wasn’t acceptable. Instead of making wholesale changes, Manning astutely recognized Toronto needed time and consistency for the group and braintrust to come together to execute the vision.

Manning electing for the status quo was the best decision he could have made. After conceding 58 goals in 2015, and being the Achilles heel against Montreal, the team brought in veterans Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour to solidify the backline, as well as goalkeeper Clint Irwin. Manager Greg Vanney grew a further understanding of how the team could compliment the exceptional talents of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore up front, dropping Michael Bradley to a deeper-lying position to serve as on-field quarterback.

The move brought an incredible change of fortune. TFC has played the Impact nine times since that disastrous night in Montreal, winning four, drawing three and losing two. Most importantly, TFC has won two Canadian Championships in the process and got the better of their foe in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals.

It’s in the games that matter the most where Toronto has turned the tables on Montreal. Now it’s the Impact trying to play catch-up. Give Montreal credit; they play their rival as hard as any. Montreal’s style of sitting deep defensively, getting stuck in, ruffling feathers and playing on the counter has proven difficult for Toronto.

Montreal is a veteran team, unafraid of getting their hands dirty. It’s the contrasting styles that make these games even more compelling: A physical, blue-collar Impact side with some edge in attack taking on the class of MLS. The underdog role suits Montreal fine, with the team and its supporters revelling in it.  

It’s not just the results over the last two seasons that have added fuel to flames, it’s how it’s all played out. Four Impact players have been sent off in the last nine games between the teams (Patrice Bernier, twice), and 32 goals scored.  

Last year’s Eastern Conference finals took matters to another level. They acknowledge as much in the halls of the KIA Training Ground at Toronto FC. From the debacle of the lines being misplaced on the disgraceful turf of Olympic Stadium, to the 61,000 strong in attendance, to TFC clawing back from three goals down to keep the tie alive heading back home, it was a dream first leg. What happened next in Toronto is the stuff of legend.

A national television audience and onlookers around the world were treated to a match for the ages. Under the lights of BMO Field on a rainy night was the perfect backdrop for stunning dramatics to play out. Toronto was forced to fight back from being down 4-2 and 5-4 on aggregate to force extra time.

In a game that featured stunning performances and numerous close calls and near misses, goals in the 98th and 100th minutes sealed the TFC victory in the best conference finals ever witnessed in MLS. For these two hockey-mad markets, it was a game that embodied all that the long-standing rivalry on the ice has represented.  

The hard feelings carried over to this summer’s Canadian Championship. The Impact hit out at Toronto for not putting the ball out of play with an injured player on the field in a sequence that lead to Toronto FC scoring an all-important away goal.

In the return leg in Toronto, Impact defender Kyle Fisher absolutely annihilated TFC’s Beitashour on what can only be described as a rugby tackle. Beitashour incredibly finished the game, but did so with a lacerated pancreas. The second half played out with the usual dramatic flair. Giovinco was denied a sure-shot penalty before Bernier was sent off, leaving the Impact with 10 men for the dying minutes.

It was five minutes into time added on, where Giovinco’s hard work defensively translated into a quick counter where the Italian scored the winner, sending the BMO Field into hysteria. Impact manager Mauro Biello took out his displeasure with an epic, yet ill-advised post-game rant for the ages. A winner at the death was the only way for this to be scripted, yet another breathtaking chapter in the budding rivalry.

This brings us to Sunday (4:30pm et/1:30pm pt on TSN Network and TSN 1050 Radio) and the first of three matches between these sides heading into the stretch run of the regular season. TFC is in pursuit of the Supporters Shield, while the Impact are back in the playoff race, hoping to continue the great escape on their fledgling season.

TFC sits on 53 points with eight games to go, hoping to eclipse the 68 points of the 1998 LA Galaxy to be considered the best team in MLS history. Five wins would equal that total, making the three games against Montreal essential in the pursuit.

The Impact are holding on for dear life to the sixth and final playoff spot after a horrible start to the season put them in a hole. Atlanta United are only one point back with a game in hand, meaning every point from here on out is precious.

This is what rivalries are made of: big games that matter between familiar foes. It matters to the supporters, the clubs and the history of this league. Hold on tight and expect the unexpected. This is a true rivalry that continues to deliver.