Toronto FC made life more difficult for themselves in the last month by taking just three of a possible 12 points from a four-game home stretch late in the season. Most recently, they fell to DC United 2-1 in a frustrating effort where their finishing ability was nowhere to be seen.
Now, though, the Reds have had a two-week international break to reflect, which may have come at the perfect time for them as they can now try to break their slump and build up some momentum before the playoffs. What's better than a rivalry match in what's bound to be a playoff-like atmosphere for lighting a fire under a struggling team?
TFC have paid two visits to Stade Saputo already this season, winning 2-0 back in April and drawing 0-0 in a Canadian Championship matchup in June. The most recent edition of the 401 Derby, though, was at the end of August, and may have been a catalyst for their recent slump.
The 1-0 home loss to the Impact, at the apex of TFC's summer hot streak, brought the Reds crashing back to Earth as they were defeated yet again while up a man. That game also cost them Sebastian Giovinco, who left in the 68th minute with the quadriceps injury that's kept him out until now.
Fortunately for Toronto, it seems likely that Giovinco will be back on Sunday:
Seba appeared to be in full training today. Update soon. #TFC— John Molinaro (@JohnMolinaro) October 12, 2016
The international break helped out the Reds in more ways than one. There's no word yet on whether or not Giovinco will start, but if he's available it would make sense. As mentioned here, chemistry between the star striker and attacking midfielder Armando Cooper would bolster TFC's attack significantly, and it's vital that the two are given enough time to develop some kind of connection through the final two regular season games.
If it was a lack of finish that caused Toronto's downfall during their homestand, then there's nobody better to save them than Sebastian Giovinco.
As it stands, the first two places in the Eastern Conference are certainly not out of reach for TFC. They're just two points behind both New York clubs, and are in with a chance of passing either to claim one of the first-round byes. Montreal, on the other hand, sit fourth and can clinch their own playoff spot with a home win.
Playing Montreal away is no easy task. The atmosphere will be hostile, and the competition on the field will be tough. TFC will need to find a way to shut down Ignacio Piatti, one of the most talented players in MLS. Tending toward the left side, the job of stopping him will likely be assigned to Michael Bradley in midfield, and Steven Beitashour and Drew Moor in the back line.
Former Red Dominic Oduro stirred the pot recently with his comments about Toronto, and will be another threat. He's scored against TFC before, and would clearly love to do so again.
If Giovinco is back in the squad, both he and Jozy Altidore will have to deal with a strong defensive group, led by Laurent Ciman. The Belgian centre back has caused trouble for Giovinco in the past, and if he's not at 100% it could make life difficult for him.
With several players now returning from injury (Jay Chapman is back in training as well as Giovinco), coach Greg Vanney can begin to nail down his optimal starting 11. It seems Clint Irwin will be the keeper heading into the playoffs, and the back four are almost settled - there is a choice to be made between Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta.
The front three of Vanney's midfield diamond could be where the decision is difficult. It seems that the club is intent on keeping Jonathan Osorio in the lineup, although he hasn't done well of late. He and Dan Lovitz both looked out of place against DC United. Regardless, Michael Bradley will anchor the midfield four, and Armando Cooper will play on the right.
This trip to Montreal is somewhat reminiscent of this time last year, when TFC lost all their regular season momentum in a 2-1 defeat to the Impact, and then came out flat not a week later in the very same venue to lose their first ever playoff game 3-0.
This is effectively a must-win game for Toronto FC. Taking three points away from Montreal could be the moment that turns their season around, or it could send them into an even deeper slump, with very little time to break out of it.
Projected Starting XI