As if fans needed a reminder of what this team is capable, last weekend's 5-0 dismantling of Orlando City came at an opportune time, assuaging some fears given the struggles that preceded.
Exciting? Fun? Encouraging? Yes on all counts, but unfortunately it was not a match that carries any portent for the future. Orlando was a struggling side, playing away from home, and down a man, then two.
That said, there were seeds of promise.
Michael Bradley came to life, putting the side on his back with three assists, Sebastian Giovinco showed he only needs one chance (well, maybe four or five) to find the back of the net, and both Robbie Findley and Jozy Altidore came to life off the bench.
Toronto needs those secondary and tertiary scoring contributions should they hope to go far; Justin Morrow goals should be bonuses, not necessities.
Regardless of the opposition, Toronto FC was a team that needed to make a statement, to others, to the fans, but most importantly to themselves. If they want the playoffs, they're there for the taking; they just have to do so.
The win, aided by results elsewhere, did achieve one noteworthy success, it helped to create some separation between fourth-placed Toronto FC and the trailing pack. Aside from New England, who sit level on points, Toronto now has a six-point gap on the three teams vying for the sixth spot.
And Saturday brings with it a chance to create a little more room on one of the clubs breathing down their necks.
The clubs have already met three times this season – once in the league and twice in the Voyageurs Cup – and that which was uttered before holds true (mostly – Parts One and Two), but still, a closer look at this week's enemy, the Montreal Impact, is in order.
The Impact sit two places behind TFC in the Eastern Conference Standings on 28 points from 22 matches, six adrift of Toronto's mark, but with two matches in hand. This match is a true six-pointer in that respect.
And Montreal will be pressed into action on short rest, having flown across the country to meet Vancouver in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup Final on Wednesday night – three matches in seven days is never easy. They lost the second leg 2-0, falling 4-2 on aggregate, granting the Whitecaps their first Canadian Championship.
Frank Klopas' side have been a difficult one to get a read on all season. They struggled from the start while progressing to the CONCACAF Champions League Final, before returning to league play with a run of five wins in seven matches, ending with the loss to Toronto at the end of June.
A draw in Philadelphia and a loss at home against New York City FC extended that winless run to three, before rebounding with a 3-0 win over Columbus.
They would lose a week later in Kansas City, falling 2-1 to Sporting KC, before embarking on a three-match unbeaten run: a 1-0 win against Seattle and a 2-3 win in New York against City, drawing 1-1 back home against the Red Bulls.
That run would end three days later, falling 0-1 to DC at Stade Saputo – Chris Rolfe scoring the game's only goal, but they came back with a pair of late goals to salvage their hopes of raising the Voyageurs Cup against the Whitecaps.
A timely bye-week, in which the Didier Drogba dream grew, came to an end last weekend when the Impact fell to Philadelphia 0-1 at home, spoiling the Ivorian's debut – Sebastian Le Toux redirecting in the winning goal.
They enter Saturday's match winless in three in the league (and five overall), still licking the fresh wounds of a dismal second leg and jet-lagged from the long flight to the West Coast.
Despite that, rest assured they will be up for the match; by no means will they roll over for Toronto.
June 24 Toronto 3: Montreal 1
Toronto rolled to a 3-1 win in the last meeting between the clubs, but not until after Montreal took the lead in the 18th minute through Ambroise Oyongo.
A quick counter from an Evan Bush roll-out saw Ignacio Piatti beat Justin Morrow to get a cross into the middle. Collen Warner attempted to clear, but his header fell to Oyongo at the top of the box, who beat Chris Konopka with a low left-footer to the right-post area.
TFC would respond in the 27th minute through Bradley, when a long-ball from Eriq Zavaleta down the right was collected by Giovinco, before pulling back into the path of the charging captain for a low left-footer past Bush.
Altidore put Toronto ahead in the 56th minute, chesting down a long Bradley pass before hitting a low shot across the keeper to the right side of goal and Giovinco rounded out the triumvirate of DP-goals from the penalty spot in the 81st minute after Bakary Soumare brought him down in the area.
Heading into the match, there are numerous question marks hovering about Klopas' side. Kickoff is less than 72 hours after the Wednesday clash in Vancouver, where they fielded a rather strong side, while two prominent members of the squad were unavailable with minor injuries.
Drogba did not travel to Vancouver with a reported toe problem, but should be expected to feature on Saturday. It is unlikely he would be rushed in to start – he will be worked up to fitness slowly; he is more likely to enter around the hour mark.
The other known unknown is the status of Ignacio Piatti, their attacking midfield maestro. He picked up a calf contusion, missing their match against Philadelphia last weekend and was also unavailable in the Voyageurs Cup. Whether he is ready to return is unclear at the moment.
And then there is Patrice Bernier, who was absence with a supposed heel problem.
Add to that list Hassoun Camara, dealing with a thigh injury, who has not seen the pitch since April, as well as Kenny Cooper and Cameron Porter, who both suffered knee injuries early in the year.
Furthermore, their starting keeper Evan Bush did not travel to Vancouver either, staying home to attend the birth of a child; expect him back in net.
With the heaviest of caveats, their projected lineup is as follows: Evan Bush in goal; from right to left – Ambroise Oyongo, Wandrille Lefevre, Laurent Ciman, and Donny Toia across the back; Eric Alexander and Marco Donadel sitting deep in the midfielder with Andres Romero, Johan Venegas, and Dilly Duka further afield; Dominic Oduro will top the formation.
Eric Kronberg looked a little unsure on Wednesday, but could retain the spot, depending on the availability of Bush.
At the back, Victor Cabrera exited the midweek match early with a pair of bookings, so should be rested, though his haphazard form of late would make him a liability against Toronto's attack. Eric Miller could come in at either full-back spot in place of Toia, who worked his socks off on Wednesday, Oyongo can swap over the left if required.
Nigel Reo-Coker too put in a shift, so may not be available, as did Callum Mallace. Mallace is the more likely to go, while, if fit, Bernier could slot into that two-man shield. Alexander was a late sub, perhaps held back for Saturday. Kyle Bekker has yet to feature for the Impact, but could make his debut, while Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare is another option in those two spots.
Projecting forward involves looking at past decisions made by the coach. Klopas chose to leave out Alexander and Duka, the latter of whom did not even travel, which could signal a desire to keep them fresh, while the early removals of Oduro, Venegas, and Donadel could indicate they had another start on the horizon.
If Piatti is fit, he will slot right into the middle, if not, either Duka or Venegas can take the central or left-sided roles – Venegas was in the middle against Philadelphia to little effect, so perhaps Duka will get the keys this time.
Maxim Tissot is another option for the left, though he has been out of favour, while Justin Mapp is still getting his fitness up after a long injury layoff, and is unlikely to go back-to-back having played ninety on Wednesday.
Up top, Anthony Jackson-Hamel could get a surprise start, but is more likely to appear from the bench.
Regardless of whether Piatti features or not, the primary weapon that Toronto will have to be on guard against is the speed of Oduro. Add in that the likes of Romero, Venegas, and Duka are no slouches in that department, while also a bit trickier, and the TFC back-line will need to be wary of letting them get behind.
With Piatti's excellent passing pulling the strings all that Montreal needs is a moment and a lane to get past the opposition. Against Columbus, a charging run up the middle from Piatti allowed him to poke a ball forward for Oduro, who blazed past Emmanuel Pogatetz to latch onto the ball, rounding the keeper to deposit into the net:
Toronto will have to track those runs carefully, doing their best to keep the attackers in front of them, should they hope to limit such chances. A corollary of that threat is the obvious danger posed by a quick counterattack. Montreal used just such a chance to open the scoring in the last meeting.
One of the ways that the Impact make the most of that threat is via direct, long-ball play. Whether Ciman, Lefevre, or Donadel, they are capable of playing accurate long passes that spring Oduro and company into lightning quick attacks.
Against New York City, it was a long pass from Ciman that played in Oduro, beating Josh Saunders to the ball before tapping into the open net:
Applying pressure higher up the field can limit the amount of time the passers have to pick those balls, while the same warnings of tracking runs and keeping a defender between the opponent and the goal can help in this department.
With Oduro pressing the back-line and the attacking midfield three drawing attention, Montreal will win some fouls in dangerous areas of the pitch, and that is where the next concern comes into being. The Impact are very dangerous in the air.
Ciman is a powerful primary target, while Lefevre has shown himself useful as well. And Drogba's talents in this facet of the game require no comment; even in his short cameo against Philadelphia it was clear he has lost none of his presence in the box.
Donadel tends to be the provider, linking up with Ciman as he nabbed an 88th minute winner from a set-piece against the Sounders:
With Ahmed Kantari and Josh Williams the central pairing, Toronto has improved their ability to deal with aerial assaults, but they will need some help.
The first note on how Montreal can be gotten at is a two-for-one deal: pressure the back-line on the ball.
As mentioned, Montreal will look to hit devastating long passes, but if Toronto can confront them higher up the pitch, not only is that threat cutoff, but there is a chance of catching them in possession and countering in on goal with the Impact caught forward.
Against DC recently, it was Cabrera who was caught stumbling by Jairo Arrieta, touching to Rolfe to score the game's only goal:
It was a poor Donadel ball that put Cabrera under pressure, while Donadel himself was easily knocked off the ball by Krizstian Nemeth, leading to a Benny Feilhaber goal against Sporting.
Toronto should get that press going, and with Bradley, Marky Delgado, and Jonathan Osorio providing an active forward midfield, not to mention the pesky Giovinco lurking, this could be their best means of finding a breakthrough.
The next manner involves hitting Montreal with a taste of their own medicine. Countering with a bit of quick, direct play of their own helped Toronto beat Montreal in the last meeting when a Bradley ball sprung Altidore, who brought it down and finished coolly:
Any time a team commits number forward to the attack – Montreal like all clubs uses its full-backs as additional width – they are liable to being caught short-handed at the back. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
The Impact will be very wary of gifting Giovinco too much space, but that is where other players – Altidore, Osorio, Delgado, and Bradley – can find those gaps to do damage.
And the final point combines aspects of the previous two.
Montreal has been unable to field a stable back-line all season. Ciman is a rock, but the rest of the defensive makeup has revolved around him. Whenever that happens, there is a tendency for gaps to open, either wide or centrally.
Players unfamiliar with each other's tendency find it more difficult to predict and thus to provide the required cover. When one leaves his position, that leads to gaps forming and the spacing between defenders getting thrown out of whack, either in the middle, or out wide.
Against Philadelphia a quick break catches Ciman up-field, leaving three defenders to span the width of the pitch. When he gets back, he drifts to the ball rather that slot back into position. CJ Sapong takes the ball wide, while Lefevre is then drawn to the near-post area to stay close to Le Toux, leaving Oyongo alone on the back-side against Eric Ayuk.
Too much space at the back allows Ayuk to send an effort on goal from Sapong's cross, while Le Toux has gotten away from his coverage into the wide gap in the middle, leading to the goal:
Toronto should look to stretch that Montreal back-line, use the full width of the pitch, and force Montreal to defend on the back-foot by playing quickly.
Lloyd Sam's goal for the Red Bulls was not dissimilar, finding a clear lane around the back-side to get on the end of a Mike Grella cross.
It is never a bad idea to make that back-side move, the trick is getting the ball there. Toronto has all the tools it needs to beat Montreal; it is a matter of doing.
All told, Montreal has never won in Toronto, through a total of twelve matches.
In the league, TFC are unbeaten in five at home against Montreal – three wins and two draws – and unbeaten in the last five overall, winning and drawing a pair (all in Toronto) and winning the only league match in Montreal last season. Montreal has, however, taken taken points from half of their last four matches in Toronto
The teams will meet one last time on the final day of the season, October 28, in Montreal.