Much has changed since the last playoff away trip Toronto FC made to Montreal. That calamitous 3-0 defeat last October is light-years away in the minds of TFC fans, with far happier memories separating then from now. Nonetheless, the Reds (and 1500 or so of their fans) will travel to the Big O on Tuesday for undoubtedly the biggest 401 Derby of all time.
Several games between Toronto and Montreal have been dubbed "the biggest game in the history of Canadian soccer." The Impact's Canadian Championship-clinching draw at BMO in 2008, before they were even in MLS, would've been the first. Even last year's playoff fixture at Saputo was expected to grow the game in Canada. No game between these two teams can ever match this one in terms of weight and significance, though.
Unfortunately for TFC, some of the momentum they generated at Yankee Stadium two weeks ago may have dissipated in the painfully long international break. On the other hand, they've had ample time to scout their opponent and get used to playing on turf, which could be a serious factor on Tuesday.
Toronto FC will be playing in the Olympic Stadium for the fourth time in club history, looking for their first victory at the venue. The last time the 401 Derby was played under the roof was in 2013, when the Reds were defeated 2-1. There is already a precedent for stunning big-game performances by TFC in Montreal, though.
TFC and Montreal have had similar roads to this stage: both sides had to get through the knockout round before convincingly disposing of a New York opponent. Toronto's win over NYCFC was certainly more lopsided, but Montreal arguably had the harder matchup against the Red Bulls, who finished first in the Eastern Conference and have two MLS MVP candidates.
Montreal are a team that TFC know quite well. This fixture has occurred eleven times in the past two years, and the Reds have a slight edge with a 5-4-2 record and a +2 goals differential (which would look significantly better were it not for last year's playoff game). All-time, Toronto are 15-8-8 against Montreal.
History won't have much impact on this game, though. Long gone are the days of a garbage-fire MLS team playing for the Voyageurs Cup against a lowly NASL side. One of these teams will be in the MLS Cup Final. Both are legitimate contenders in this league now.
Heading into a hostile atmosphere, a draw in Montreal would not be the end of the world for TFC. Especially if they score an away goal, heading back to BMO without having to work from behind would be huge. The Impact will not be an easy team to play.
As Oliver Platt wrote yesterday, TFC can't be overly scared of the counter-attack that Montreal is notorious for. Aggression in attack is what dismantled NYCFC on the road, and it's crucial that Justin Morrow isn't scared to push up as he normally does. The 3-5-2 formation has a better safety net for handling the counter attack, as the opposite wing-back will slide into a back four when his counterpart moves forward.
Ignacio Piatti is dynamic from his wing position, so both Steven Beitashour and, believe it or not, Armando Cooper will be critical in keeping him at bay. Cooper, conventionally an attacking midfielder, made several key tackles against NYC and is fast enough that he won't let Piatti too far out of his range.
The same goes for Matteo Mancosu up front, who can do a lot of damage when Piatti or Dominic Oduro get him the ball. All three of TFC's back line have a good few inches in height on him though, so much of the attack will likely be on the ground.
Toronto and Montreal are not the friendliest of rivals, and several games between them have become quite heated. That may become relevant quickly, as both teams have multiple players sitting on yellow cards and neither wants to lose an important piece of their lineup for the second leg. Cooper, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore are all one caution away from a suspension, as are Evan Bush, Laurent Ciman, Hassoun Camara, and Johan Venegas for the Impact.
On Toronto's end of things, it seems almost impossible that Greg Vanney would change anything about his lineup. They have not yet lost with the 3-5-2, and every starter has been performing well. The tandem of Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco is better than any other in MLS, and the midfield has been steady as ever with Bradley in command. Tosaint Ricketts has been incredible as a supersub, and ideally will continue to do so.
No matter what happens on Tuesday, a new chapter will be written in the incredible sports rivalry between Toronto and Montreal, with much more at stake than any Leafs-Habs game in recent memory. Casual fans are sure to take notice of a midweek game on a cold night in November that draws north of 60,000 people. Both sides are arguably the strongest they've ever been. What more can you ask for?
Projected Starting XIs: