The MLS Eastern Conference Finals, for the first time in the history of the league, would see two Canadian teams go head to head. The Two Solitudes have one of the fiercest rivalries, not just in sports, but in politics and history stemming all the way back to the British conquest over New France. The battle between Montreal & Toronto rages across all avenues of sport. Both legs of this competition are completely sold-out, with nothing left at the front gate for late-comers to try to snatch up. The first leg was destined for Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, clearing 61,004 fans, with many having driven highway 401 from Toronto. NSXI’s ELO ratings, with home field advantage included, would give Impact a slight advantage over TFC for this leg, 53.7% – 46.3%, but with a rivalry this hot, anything could happen.
The first question on Impact’s mind: will Drogba play? An hour before kick-off, Impact would simply delay the question by announcing a line-up placing him on the bench at the start of the match. From the Toronto side, the question would be whether Rickett’s would start. Again, the player would find himself sitting as a sub. With both of these skilled players out of the starting XI, anticipation of their arrival on the pitch would build throughout the match. The first question on everyone watching in the stands or at home: why haven’t they drawn the lines yet? The stadium had a major “oops” and incorrectly measured the lines, requiring a redo when the referees arrived to verify them. This set the match’s start over 30 minutes late, but if you were watching on TSN, you ended up missing segments throughout the match as the feed periodically cut out. Technical glitches aside, it was a stellar match to behold.
Montreal took no time in setting themselves up as a force with which to be reckoned. Oduro opening up the scoring in the 10′, the stadium erupted. The cheering echoed throughout as the dome was closed. Bernier, a Canadian from Brossard, QC, passed the ball forward to Oduro, who would give Montreal the lead. Only 2 minutes later, Piatti would chip a pass over to Mancosu, who would sink it well past Toronto’s keeper. With the Impact up 2-0 after only 12′ of play, the match was already looking substantially different than what anyone really expected. With the tone of the first half well-set, Montreal would continue to dominate. A powerful shot from Oduro in the 29′ would give Quebec’s team their first corner kick of the night, but it was safely cleared.
Toronto’s first real chance wouldn’t come until the 36′ when Morrow would test Bush (originally from Ohio, but calls Montreal his hometown) with a quick shot that would be quickly gathered up. Piatti would chip one at Irwin in Toronto’s half, but the ball went high and over the net. A pair of Giovinco free kicks in the 41′ & 42′ would both be rendered useless, with the first bouncing out of play and the second hitting the wall. Toronto looked drastically outmatched by Montreal through the first half, with the blue-and-black running circles around the reds. Some drastic changes would be needed in the 2nd half in order to turn things around.
Unfortunately for Toronto, the 2nd half would start right where the 1st half ended: with Montreal making them look bad. In the 53′, Oyongo would make an unchallenged run with the ball and slide it straight past Irwin, giving Impact their 3rd goal of the evening. Bernier would get credit for the assist, demonstrating the strength of the Canadian players on field. The blue-and-black would continue to dance around Toronto, and it was beginning to looking like the Ontario-side were doing their best NYCFC impersonation.
With Toronto firmly on the ropes, some changes were needed. In the 57′, the Reds would bring on a pair of Canadians and the whole flow of the match would change. Ricketts, from Edmonton, would come on for Osorio, while Toronto-homegrown Johnson would take Cooper’s place on the field. The change worked wonders, with the team moving dramatically differently. Altidore, almost invisible most of the match, would be the first to score for the Reds, with a header beating Bush in the 68′. Montreal would sub Drogba in for Mancosu in the 71′, only to watch as Ricketts would setup Bradley to give Toronto their 2nd of the match in the 74′. Inevitably, Montreal would opt to leave Lefevre, the last Canadian player, on the benches in favour of bringing in Venegas in the 87′. It would all be for nothing as Impact’s final shot, which was a perfect setup for Drogba, would see the much-hyped but poorly performing player “slip” and miss the net completely in the 88′.
It was a furious match, with tensions high on both sides. Despite this, I have to say I was surprised how clean the match ended up. Without any cards being issued throughout the match, and with a number of phenomenal shots from either side, it was definitely a thrill a minute. For an all-Canadian Eastern Conference Final though, it wasn’t a very Canadian match as only 5 players (1 of which is originally from Ohio) were Canadian. It’s disappointing to see so few homegrown players on the field. Despite that, the teams produced some great play and for the 61,004 fans in attendance, there was something for everyone to cheer about. With the next match happening in Toronto, it’ll be interesting to see the conclusion of the Two Solitudes Derby.