Last year the world was witness to roughly one hundred versions of the match known as El Clasico, and for the most part it was warmly received. That was because when Barcelona and Real Madrid meet up it can often be some of the most entertaining soccer in the world as many of the games top stars are on display. Even in that rivalry though, by the seventh meeting or so things got a bit more chippy and the games started to lose some of the initial luster. It is probably the best example of too many matches watering down the real significance of a rivalry. For Europe's top clubs it can often be possible for the teams to meet twice in the league, as many as five times in various domestic cups, and with some "luck" of the draw four times in continental competitions. That adds up to a massive eleven potential meetings for some of these teams in any given season.
Now for Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact we know that the rivalry will not reach that kind of level but this season at least, there are five games already on the schedule with a potential of two more playoff games to round things out. That makes me wonder if that is just too many games and if it might water down what could be one of the best rivalries this side of Cascadia. If you get to see the Impact at BMO only once a season then it is special but this year they will be at BMO twice so will both meetings have the same intensity and atmosphere? Or even worse what about the three times that the Reds are set to go to Montreal to play. How many fans are actually going to be able to make that trip more than once in a season?
For me the answer is simple. While five meetings is not ideal for the intensity of the rivalry in season one it will not be too much. That first meeting in Montreal, on April 7, will probably be the first big road trip for TFC supporters in quite some time so it is shaping up to be a special occasion for both clubs. The Impact's only MLS trip to BMO comes late in the season and it should be a special game with TFC hopefully being in the midst of a playoff push at the time. Then the two meetings in the Voyageurs Cup should be special just because of that place that competition holds in the hearts of many fans.It is actually the remaining game, the 4th overall, on June 27th, that is likely to be the least special one of the bunch. That game would be the third trip to Montreal for some fans in basically three months which would probably be a bit too much for most of us to do. It also lacks any real added motivation for being a special game. It is not the clubs first MLS meeting, it won't really have any sort of playoff significance being still early in the season, and it won't have anything to do with the Canadian Championship.
As the fourth meeting in fourth months the one thing that it could have is a fair bit of bad blood. One of these two teams will still be scathing from being knocked out of the Voyageurs Cup and will certainly be looking for a measure of revenge in this one. So in the end we could be looking at five very exciting matches so I guess I would say that for this season at least we won't be seeing too much of the Impact.
The real question is if this rivalry is going to be one that begins and ends with the fans or if it spills over to the playing field. There are so few Canadians on the Impact roster so what are the chances that they actually understand the natural rivalry between Toronto and Montreal. Other than Patrice Bernier and some of the younger guys around, the Impact really do not have anyone who would be familiar with the rivalry. Their fans are sure to know but that will only add to the atmosphere not actually fire the players up as much as if they felt strongly about it.
For this the best case and point is probably the game last year when Toronto opened the season against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Caps hardly had any Canadian players who understood the natural rivalry between the two cities but what they did have was a fan base that was very fired up to get one over on TFC. It was that motivation from the stands that probably helped to turn that game into a very memorable experience. But, when Toronto FC takes on Montreal for the first time it will not be for their MLS debut but rather will just be another game on a Saturday afternoon of the same day that the Leafs play the Canadiens. For this rivalry to ever even get off the ground it will require the fans of both clubs to show up in numbers on that day.
I think that the fans are what will make this rivalry special but for that to happen the Impact are going to need a major boost to their reported ticket sales. So far they have reportedly only sold 7000 season tickets which is barely a drop in the ocean that is Olympic Stadium let alone enough to fill Saputo on a regular basis. The challenge for the team will be to sell more tickets and then create the sort of buzz needed if they are going to rely on walk up ticket sales.
In the end I am very much looking forward to this rivalry, all five occasions, both on the field and in the stands. I am also looking forward to this rivalry playing out in its own way over SB Nation with the Impact blog launching soon. For all the latest on that blog you can follow Mount Royal Soccer.