So we meet again.
It seems like eons ago that Toronto FC put in a dominant ninety minute performance in the second leg of the opening round of the Voyageurs Cup.
Though it has only been six short weeks since then, much has changed.
Toronto were crowned Canadian Champions, ended their woeful run in the league, then changed coach; got hammered in Kansas, then in Houston and again at home against New England; scored goals, then gave them up.
Comparatively speaking Montreal have been remarkable stable.
A few disappointing results saw them bid adieu to Stade Olympique heading into the international break intent on taking stock of their first months in MLS and to refocus on the rest to come.
Then came a fresh start, in a new stadium - Stade Saputo - barely finished, but bang on time for a thrilling opening match against Seattle.
The two Canadian rivals meet once more - their fourth of five on the season - on Wednesday night. It will be fierce, but what to expect for the Impact.
As mentioned, Montreal limped into the break: a 1-1 draw with Los Angeles at home, before dropping the next - and final - at the Big O 1-2 to New York, even though they were playing up a man for over half the match.
One final embarrassment, a peculiar game-winner conceded in Colorado to hand the Rapids a 3-2 win, despite Montreal again having the man advantage at the time.
The lack of fight by the Montreal defenders, including backup - and former Toronto - keeper Greg Sutton, in for Donovan Ricketts who left the match as a precaution some twenty minutes earlier, seemed odd. Replays reveal that the referee blew the play down - presumably for the ball being out of play - and pointed for a corner kick, freezing the defense, just as the ball fell and was converted by the Colorado attacker. The ref then awarded the goal unabashedly, much to the astonishment of the Montreal side.
The Impact were left to stew over that dubious decision for some twenty days as MLS went into hibernation for World Cup Qualifiers.
And what emerged from that stagnation was a new side.
An emotional 4-1 drubbing of a struggling Seattle to christen the renovated ground, a sluggish 2-1 loss at Chivas midweek after flying across the continent and finally a triumphant return home - and satisfying scolding - of Brian Ching - he who politely refused to stay with the club after having been selected in the Expansion Draft -‘s Houston, 4-2 on Saturday evening.
Nine goals in their last three matches (eleven in four, if the two in Colorado are counted) - a goal-scoring beast born of a subtle transmogrification of the midfield.
Montreal dabbled with the 4-2-3-1 formation earlier in the season before reverting to a more basic 4-4-2. Coach Jesse Marsch, in continuing to evolve and going back to a form of the 4-2-3-1, stumbled across a very successful central midfield three that have provided the platform from which they have built their renewed form.
Placing the dynamic Brazilian Felipe Martins at the point of the midfield, with a revitalized Patrice Bernier and Collen Warner at the base, has provided the flexibility to both attack and defend more fluently.
Warner fulfills most of the defensive duties, holding down the centre, while playing a role in the distribution either forward or to the flanks. Bernier, who had previously struggled to find a place in Marsch's eleven, has shone in his role linking the defense and attack, starting forward movements and trailing intelligently to both provide and capitalize on chances as they come.
It is a toss-up whether Bernier or Martins are more vital in the new system; each has been involved in the majority of the goals created since the formation was rethought.
Martins has become a revelation further up the pitch, his tireless movement and skill on the ball, combined with the ability to break up the play of the opposition from further up the pitch have pushed Montreal point of attack closer to the target. No longer do they rely on long passes to break down defenses - they still have that speed and guile of before - but have the option of turning to face defenses and pick them apart as well.
It comes as no surprise that he is in the top five of both fouls committed and fouls suffered given how often he is on or around the ball.
Heading into the match versus Toronto there are several injury concerns that will affect the lineup.
Andrew Wenger, now a full-time professional having completed his schooling, provides a more mobile outlet up top in lieu of the injured Bernardo Corradi - torn ACL, though Wenger himself is out with a hamstring strain.
And then there is designated player Marco Di Vaio, eligible to take the field for his first match, should he be called upon.
Di Vaio often played up top by himself in Italy with Bologna relying on overlapping wingers in a 3-4-2-1 to provide width and surges from a pair of attack-minded midfielders as support.
Normally one would assume a cameo role - likely as a second half substitute for Sanna Nyassi, who spear-headed the attack against Houston - would best suit the debut of a player with a new club, but Montreal rarely does things without panache. Either of Di Vaio or Nyassi as a starter and the other as a sub would provide a spark and a different problem for the Toronto back-line, the question is whether to use pace at the beginning to tire the defense out for Di Vaio's introduction, or use him first and let Nyassi's speed ask questions of tired legs.
With all that in mind, the projected lineup for Wednesday night is as follows: Donovan Ricketts in goal; from right to left: Zarek Valentin, Hassoun Camara, Shavar Thomas, and Jeb Brovsky across the back; Warner and Bernier at the base of the midfield with Davy Arnaud, Felipe and Justin Mapp across the top; and Di Vaio starting atop the formation.
That all being said, Montreal, like Toronto, is in the midst of a difficult run of fixtures that could well see them make drastic changes to the starting eleven. Given their strong run of home form and the importance of these local rivalries, it is unlikely any undue risks will be taken.
The two legs of the Voyageurs Cup tie were a professional display by a desperate Toronto side. Stifling the match to earn a scoreless draw in the first leg away, TFC returned home the following week, striking quickly to take the lead and holding on - some would say dominating - despite losing Richard Eckersley to an early red card.
An early strike from Reggie Lambe in the second minute did away with any nerves remaining from their horrendous form in the league, then their ball movement and relentless pressing in search of a second pinned the Impact back for long stretches until Ryan Johnson found that second after a half-cleared corner kick fell kindly for him to place into the back of the net.
Montreal looked heavy-legged and without inspiration on the night, Marsch was left questioning the desire of his side post-match. Aside from Justin Mapp smashing a volley off the bar, they could muster very little by way of response and Toronto looked a constant threat to add to their lead.
Bob de Klerk's sideline emotional fireworks set in the direction of Marsch emphasized the importance of the result come the final whistle.
The less said about the first leg, the better.
Toronto was undone by a sluggish performance when the two last met in the league during the first week of April. Mere days after their disappointing second leg in Torreon, TFC struggled to find a rhythm on the patchwork turf surface at the Olympic Stadium.
Sinisa Ubiparipovic capitalized on a lazy turnover, stroking a low shot into the corner of the goal on a quick transition to take the lead in the opening twenty minutes. The two sides exchanged chances before Logan Emory was sent off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity tripping up Nyassi as he strode in alone on goal.
A Ty Harden miscue, winning the ball but leaving it loose in a dangerous position for Wenger to collect and place into the far-corner doubled the Montreal lead, before Toronto snapped out of their funk and stole one back in the final minutes through a Danny Koevermans header of a Lambe right-sided cross.
Montreal Impact 8th Place Eastern Conference
18 Points 16 Games 5 Wins 8 Losses 3 Draws
24 Goals For 26 Against -2 Goal Differential
At Home 4-1-2
On the Road 1-7-1
Last Five L-L-W-L-W
In four of Montreal's last five matches their opponents have been reduced to ten men.
Montreal has been involved in a jaw-dropping ten penalty kicks this season, nearly a full thirty-percent of those taken in the league: five for and five against.
Given the goal-scoring form each side has exhibited in recent matches and the relative porous nature of their defenses, this has the makings of a high-scoring barn-burner, or - as Sod's law dictates - a drab nil-nil.
Should Toronto fall behind, they should not let their heads drop. Montreal has conceded twelve of their twenty-six goals against in the final half hour of matches.
Keep an eye on the battle between Danny Koevermans and the replacement centre-backs. The battle between the big Dutchman and Nelson Rivas looked to be epic, but with the starting pair out, will the replacements be able to deal with Danny.
Montreal has been very susceptible to dead-ball situations - free kicks and corners - as well as service from wide areas.
Toronto must use restarts wisely - read: stop sending corner kicks long - and continue to capitalize on crosses as they have these last two matches.
This one could well get chippy; see the earlier note of red cards and penalties, and here watch Rivas smash into Fredy Montero after the Seattle striker took his frustrations out on Felipe minutes earlier.
Good on Montreal for choosing to honour a verbal agreement reached with Corradi to extend his contract even though he will miss the remainder of the season with ligament damage. It is these kinds of decisions that help a club build a good reputation to attract talent to the city, as Toronto has shown, bad ones will haunt the team.