It's MLS Rivalry Week - I'll pause while you get super pumped and read Duncan's most excellent breakdown of the animosity between the two teams - and Canada's chosen combatants are your Reds and the Montreal Impact; Vancouver wasn't even invited to the party (suck it Whitecaps). In what has been branded (and looks like the name is sticking) as the 401 Derby, Toronto FC are again heading into La Belle Provence to take on a team that they've quite frankly owned in both MLS and Voyageur's Cup play over the past six years. For TFC the Impact have always been that handy ego boost - sure we're shite but let's beat that team from Quebec - Tic Tac and all that. But this year it may not be such a cake walk (OK, promenade de gâteau if you're looking for a little bilingualism).
The Impact are a team in very good form. Kind of scary good actually. It's tough enough to start your season on the road, against two pretty good west coast teams in the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers, in two of the loudest most difficult stadiums to play in; but to come away with all six points? Well, that's pretty close to astonishing. And neither win was of the fluke variety - both were solid, well executed games by a team that's been together as a solid group for the past year or more. Yes, owner Joey Saputo seems intent on building his own Italian men's club but with results like these who's going to argue?
Making it even more difficult for TFC is that fact that this game is the Impact's home opener. And instead of playing it in the relatively intimate confines of Stade Saputo, they'll instead be hosting the Reds at the Big O - where upwards of 30,000 fans will do their level best to drown out the TFC fans that are making the journey. An intimidating environment at the very least. Adding to that intimidation are some fairly dangerous attacking players with the likes of Felipe Martins, Davy Arnaud and Patrice Bernier in the midfield and of course DP striker Marco Di Vaio up top. Montreal will likely play a more attacking, high line style of game than they did in their two previous games; the Reds will need to be wary of build up through the middle and the Impact's passing game.
However, this is not TFC 2012 - they of the 0-9 start to the season and self-styled (thanks Koef) worst team in the world. Ryan Nelsen's team has shown a (for TFC) surprising commitment to defence; absorbing pressure handily in both their loss to Vancouver and their win over Sporting KC last week. The newly formed partnership of Danny Califf and Darren O'Dea has given TFC their perhaps best CB pairing ever and have thus far been at ease in snuffing out attacks. With strength in the centre, both Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley are able to overlap with the players on the wings and join the attack with less fear. What's been an even more welcome sight has been Ecks doing a better job of tracking back and not forgetting his defensive responsibilities. Morgan hasn't been as successful (and maybe the weak link at the back) but has still shown some solid play. Having a solid backline is something TFC has lacked in ages and it's obvious that Nelsen (former CB that he is) has his team playing as a more cohesive unit.
Montreal will also need to be worried about TFC's newest additions to the attack. Newly minted TFC hero Robert Earnshaw has shown a true striker's ability to get in the open around the opposition goal as well as tirelessly run around the pitch drawing defenders to him. Last week's game also saw John Bostock's nifty moves with the ball lead to at least one of TFC's goals as well as again, confound the opposition defense and help free up Earnshaw.
The main question for Toronto is who's healthy? Does Joe Bendik - who has done a fairly admirable job in net the first two games - retain his starting spot or is Stefan Frei going to get his first start of the season? And then there's the midfield; while Terry Dunfield and Jeremy Hall have been decent we're still waiting to see the debut of veteran Julio Cesar's influence in moving the ball through the midfield to the attacking players as well as breaking up the oppostion sorties. And the attack for the Reds would surely be boosted if Luis Silva were fit to work in behind Earnshaw; Kyle Bekker has a seemingly bright future but Silva is the go to attacking midfielder for TFC at the moment. Out of all of those players it is unlikely that anyone (other than maybe Cesar) will be playing tomorrow. This is the Reds' third game on turf and it's doubtful that Nelsen would want to risk any of his recently healed players on the plastic pitch. With Toronto getting a bye next week the extra time to fully recover and practice with the team is invaluable.
This will be a hard fought game as both teams have something to prove. Montreal will not only be buoyed by the home crowd and want to give their fans a victory, but also to show MLS that those two road wins were not a fluke. In a similar vein TFC is looking to prove that this is a new team, that they are not the circus we've been watching for the past six years and that last week's (OK, the opening 45 at least) good showing against Sporting KC was just the beginning and not a one off. There is no love lost between the two teams so expect it to get physical; although hopefully no one gets punched this time. The same goes for the fans - the stands should be a loud rowdy place and both teams will be feeding off of the energy of their supporters.
This is going to be a fun one kids. If you're part of the horde of fans making the trip to Montreal - bon voyage! If you're staying home make sure you're parked in front of a TV at 4pm (1pm PT, game on TSN) as this is not one that you want to miss. Allez les Rouges!