Surely this can't be how it ends?
Toronto FC fans have waited a long time for their first taste of the post-season.
And now, after what can easily be seen as the most enjoyable season in the club's history – leaving aside the sheer enthusiasm of Year One's 'just glad to be here' motif – they have finally reached that promised land... nine years in the making.
To call this 'most enjoyable' may rankle with some, the bitterness of long, cold winters is not easily forgotten, but lost in all the hand-wringing and ghosts of the pasts, TFC has been a lot of fun this season.
The goals: there have been many; on both nets. The cracking matches: think of that 4-4 against New York City or the come-from-behind 3-3 draw in Columbus, or the combined 9-1 demolitions of Orlando City in August. Many a season has passed without such entertainment.
And there has been a lot for which to cheer: Sebastian Giovinco has been more than any could have imagined, while quietly, and with little fanfare, Jozy Altidore has had himself a tidy, albeit at times rocky, season. Benoit Cheyrou has been pure class, and Michael Bradley, has looked more like the general he needs to be for this team to succeed.
None of that has been satisfying.
It has been good, but needs to be better. They have made the playoffs, but that is not the final goal. They secured a spot, but failed to ensure a home fixture.
This project is not done. The work continues.
And so, it all boils down to Thursday night's epic encounter against Canadian rivals, the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo. One could not have drawn up a better scenario.
Sure, the Impact defeated Toronto on Sunday to take home field advantage. And yes, MLS is a difficult league to play away from home. But, all that gets thrown out of the window for this next match.
To the winner, goes another match; then another, and perhaps even more after that. To the loser, only haunting questions of what could have been.
So this is it, ninety minutes remain. Is this the end? Or just the beginning...
Given that just four days will have passed between meetings, a slightly different tact will be taken in the preview. It shall begin with a few lineup notes, continue with a recap of Sunday's encounter, and end with an examination of two parts of the pitch that will be crucial to victory on Thursday.
Barring any late injury pronouncements, or miraculous recoveries, it is unlikely that either side will make major changes to the elevens that trotted out on Sunday.
In Red, Marky Delgado could be reinserted into the starting lineup on the right side of midfield, at the expense of Robbie Findley. Damien Perquis, however, is unlikely to be available with that hamstring still a problem.
In Blue, Dilly Duka, who came on to great effect in the second half, could make the start, taking either Johan Venegas' or Dominic Oduro's wide role. Oduro would make for a dangerous late injection of pace, while if Justin Mapp is fit, he could prove an interesting addition. And for all the play-acting and concern, Didier Drogba will be ready to go; he will go even if he is not.
Montreal's lineup will be as follows: Evan Bush in goal; from right to left – Ambroise Oyongo, Victor Cabrera, Laurent Ciman, and Donny Toia across the back; Nigel Reo-Coker and Marco Donadel will sit deep in midfield with Dominic Oduro, Ignacio Piatti, and Dilly Duka further ahead; Didier Drogba will top the formation
October 25th Montreal Impact 2: Toronto FC 1
Montreal responded well to a dominant Toronto opening salvo in a proverbial game of two halves, over-powering an Altidore strike with a pair in quick succession from Drogba taking the advantage into Thursday's playoff encounter.
TFC would have been well-served by doing more in that first half.
Giovinco nearly beat Bush in the fifth minute with a low shot towards the bottom corner, while Findley would set up the Italian for another chance, only for the offside flag to cancel a fine save from Bush. Bush was then called upon again to deny Findley's header from a Giovinco ball hung up at the back-post, swatting away the attempt with a strong hand.
Toronto would finally take a well-deserved lead in the 45th minute, when Giovinco beat Cabrera wide on the left from a Jonathan Osorio ball and his cross was headed in neatly by Altidore.
But Montreal came to life with the addition of Duka; Drogba and Piatti finding the required room to cause all sorts of problems for the Toronto defenses.
Drogba hit the crossbar, a warning, before finding the back of the net in the 54th minute. Bradley nearly responded – Bush again coming to the rescue – before a second from Drogba off a quickly taken short-corner turned the result on it's head in the 55th minute.
Piatti nearly added a third two minutes later, his left-footer striking the woodwork, as TFC looked rattled by the quick-fire response.
The Impact would find several more half-chances, they were perhaps unlucky to not pad their lead, before TFC finally snapped out of their funk, mounting an attempted-comeback.
Bradley rattled the crossbar in the 74th minute after a lovely passing move that shredded the Montreal defenses. Then Drogba tried to beat Chris Konopka off his line from the centre-circle, but the big keeper got back to make a nervous save.
Toronto would find one final chance to level in the 92nd minute when Giovinco and Bradley combined to move into the area, but Altidore appeared to get in the way of a return ball and was unable to finish due to a game-saving slide tackle from Hassoun Camara.
In a match that featured such a diverse array of stars, there was also plenty of emotion on display. That will carry over into this next encounter.
Rather than delve into a ton of detail, or get bogged down in head-to-head records – those matter little now – instead, two areas of the pitch that proved decisive in the last meeting will be examined: Toronto's defensive right and the area above the Montreal box.
Montreal's second half surge decided the last match. By the time Toronto had recovered from the shock of two goals, the game was all but over. The addition of the much-more active Duka was one factor, that should not be discounted – his movement and energy is very useful, but more influential was that his role brought Piatti into the game and gave him space to play.
Playing Jackson at right-back has been a fantastic adventure. He is marauding in attack and, though not the prettiest, his tenacious defending has been effective. The risk of playing Jackson, especially with a forward, such as Findley, ahead of him, is that it is far too easy to either exploit him one-on-one or double up on him.
Jackson can be caught too far-forward by a quick ball and his willingness to jump into a tackle sets him up to be played around by passing. Add in the yellow card he was carrying at the time and it was not really surprising that he struggled.
With Duka rushing forward, or cutting inside, Piatti was able to drift out wide towards that touchline and find the space he needed to operate. Several times in the fifteen minutes of dominance, Donadel began the trouble with one of those stretch balls to the attacking left, picking out Piatti in acres of room. On one occasion, he didn't even need to look, knowing that if he put the ball there, good things would happen.
Montreal's equalizer came from a criss-cross move that saw Duka dart inside, while Piatti took on Jackson, backing him into position before delivering the cross:
Note, Bradley is the defender that gets back, just a spot too late, to support Jackson and cut out the lane to Duka.
Should Toronto field Delgado in place of Findley, that could compensate, adding a touch more defensive presence on that side, thereby giving Jackson the necessary support to deal with both Piatti and another attacker.
But so too does the responsibility fall on TFC's central players – Cheyrou and Bradley, or perhaps Warner, to get over and provide timely cover. The centre-backs will have their hands full dealing with Drogba.
That Donadel to Piatti connection was no surprise – Montreal has long excelled at playing a game-breaking long pass – but what was shocking was how much space the Impact allowed Giovinco at the top of their area.
Neither Ciman, nor Cabrera seemed willing to step into Toronto's talisman in those areas of the pitch – perhaps they feared conceding free-kicks from such positions. His abilities from there are well-known.
Equally, maybe they figured that as long as they kept the ball in front of them, did not allow Giovinco to turn that corner, his impact would be limited. Toronto's best chances indeed came when Giovinco was able to steal down those wide channels into the area, setting up his teammates on numerous occasions.
But in conceding that trade-off, Montreal gave Giovinco space to operate and pick his shots. None came to fruition, but if he is given another ninety minutes to play with, rest assured he will find his moments.
Given Montreal's set-up, it was definitely a little odd. With Reo-Coker and Donadel, two midfield bulldogs patrolling that part of the pitch, one would expect Giovinco to have them nipping at his heels all match. They did, Donadel in particular seemed to have a feel for Giovinco's intentions, but those long-toothed defensive-mids were not, and will not, be able to match him stride for stride throughout.
Another facet to be considered is that neither Reo-Coker, nor Donadel were booked on Thursday – shockingly, Donadel was only called for a single foul, which is very much out of character for him. They were lucky the match official was of the British School (though he may not like falling under that classification, sorry). Thursday's, however, is of a different stripe. And if either bites too hard on a move or fake, yellow or worst will be their fate.
If Sunday proved any football truism, it was that the margins between victory and defeat are thin. Either team could have won that match. A post here, a crossbar there. A key save. A moment of inattention.
Moments turn a match. Thursday looks to be similarly tight. Enjoy.