TORONTO FC X MONTREAL IMPACT: THE CANADIAN RIVALRY MAKING WAVES IN MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER

Scenes of despair cut through the cold November wind slicing through BMO Field in Toronto, Canada. Dominic Oduro opened the scoring with Montreal Impact’s first shot on target, silencing the home crowd with a right-footed roller across the box and a “shush” gesture to the opposing fans in celebration.

Oduro had already scored the first goal of the match a week prior in the first leg of the 2016 MLS Eastern Conference Final, giving Montreal the 3-2 lead before the second leg eight days later. An awful feeling of déjà vu lingered with Toronto FC as the Impact extended their aggregate lead to two goals in hopes of clinching their first berth in the MLS Cup Final.

Toronto fans stayed silent only for a moment until the following kickoff ensued. After all, this was a derby match with big implications. The supporters in the south end, larger in size for the night with the temporary grandstand installed, were louder than ever as they willed their team to make the comeback against their bitter rivals.

The football rivalry between the two cities goes by many names. Most know it as the Canadian Classique or the “401 Derby”, named after Highway 401 that spans across most of the distance between Toronto and Montreal. But it’s also known as the “Two Solitudes Derby,” named after the cultural phenomenon that highlighted the lack of communication and understanding — intentional or not — between the French and English speaking parts of Canada.

Former Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean, stated that “the time of the two solitudes that for far too long described the character of this country is past.” But the conflict between the two cities lives on through sport, through the storied hockey rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and through the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC in the beautiful game.

Hugh MacLennen’s novel, Two Solitudes, dove into different themes of conflict between anglophones and francophones of Canada. And although football is now a commercially-driven global game, those underlying subjects still build to the derby days that fans look forward to in each and every season.

When they disliked, they disliked the entirety of the group.

Before Montreal’s opening goal to kick off the festivities, Hernan Bernardello and Toronto’s Jozy Altidore crashed into each other while going for an aerial ball. The Toronto forward led with his shoulder and Bernardello fell to the turf headfirst. A shoving match between both teams followed the incident with Montreal making a case to the referees that Altidore should be sent off.

Tensions always run high between the two clubs on the pitch, but also in the stands between the fierce supporters. It didn’t matter that Oduro once represented Toronto in the bright red kit. Nobody held back their feelings of joy and disdain for each event that occurred in the match. The animosity flows through the veins of both sets of fans during the 90 minutes of every encounter.

Tifos are proudly displayed by each faction at their respective homes. In Montreal’s Olympic Stadium during the first leg, a banner read: “Ce que les gens pensent, on ose le dire tout haut.” Translated into English, it means: “What people think, we dare say aloud.” And the last part could be understood by anyone in the vicinity: “Fuck Toronto.”

Toronto battled back with their own displays when the tie returned home to BMO Field. Theirs read: “We dare say what everyone thinks. Quebexit.”

There’s no love lost between the clubs. Long-time Montreal Impact captain, Patrice Bernier, earned a straight red card for a late two-footed slide tackle in the 2016 Canadian Championship semifinal, causing a melee between the players just before halftime. Lucas Ontivero suffered the same fate in the second leg after an alleged retaliatory headbutt.

Animosity flows through the veins of every player and fan. The 2016 Eastern Conference Final didn’t look to be any different, although cooler heads prevailed, and no cards were shown.

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The war was the product of cities which constantly threatened their tradition, of English-American big businesses, factories…

Toronto halved the deficit to one when Armando Cooper poked the ball into the corner of the net after a failed clearance in the box. Then, just before the halftime break, Altidore brought the crowd to its feet in a roar of excitement with a quick near-post header off a Sebastian Giovinco corner. Toronto suddenly had the 4-4 aggregate lead on away goals, one step closer to the MLS Cup Final.

The combination of Altidore and Giovinco has paid great dividends to a Toronto side that once struggled to keep up with the rest of the North American clubs in talent and marketing potential. It wasn’t for a lack of trying as Toronto had tried to make waves in the past with Jermain Defoe in their self-proclaimed “bloody big deal.”

The acquisition of English striker came with the glitz and glamour of marketing campaigns that promised a new hope for Toronto that ultimately fizzled like past shakeups. Before that, the introduction of Aron Winter as head coach was supposed to bring the Dutch and Ajax culture to Canada’s largest city, but that came to an abrupt halt after one-and-a-half years and nine straight losses to start the 2012 MLS season.

Imaginations ran wild with Defoe donning the kit with the red maple leaf as good fortunes looked to finally be on Toronto’s side, but he only played in 19 games before returning to England to play for Sunderland as Toronto failed to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs in the previous eight seasons.

Toronto always looked to make the big blockbuster move to get everyone to notice them. And if things didn’t go to plan, there would be no hesitation in hitting the reset button and going back to the drawing board. Every revolution drew more and more publicity, keeping Ontario’s capital constantly in the spotlight as they wished.

On the opposite side of the spectrum sits Montreal. Unlike Toronto, backed by the powerful corporate owners of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the Impact is operated by owner and chairman Joey Saputo, known for his family’s Canadian dairy empire while also being the chairman of Bologna in Italy.

Saputo’s team has arguably made only two expensive and high-profile acquisitions. 36-year-old Italian striker Marco Di Vaio became the club’s first Designated Player in their inaugural season, finishing only two goals short of the 2013 MLS scoring title.

The Impact then welcomed Didier Drogba after his second stint at Chelsea FC. The Côte d’Ivoire legend filled the seats at Stade Saputo with a quick start of 11 goals in his first 11 games, but the 38-year-old’s production slowed as time progressed.

Saputo’s team has arguably made only one high-profile acquisition, bringing in Didier Drogba after his second stint at Chelsea. The Côte d’Ivoire legend filled the seats at Stade Saputo with a quick start of 11 goals in his first 11 games, but the 38-year-old’s production slowed as time progressed.

The family-owned club prefers to invest in more affordable players, hoping for similar production outputs without the pressure of playing under extreme scrutiny. Ignacio Piatti arrived on a free transfer from Argentine club San Lorenzo in 2014, and the winger now stands as Montreal’s all-time leader in goals and assists.

Toronto and Montreal run in contrast of each other, so when they go into battle on the pitch, it’s not just a war between enemies. It’s a conflict of ideologies—the flashiness of the Reds against the gritty underdogs in bleu-blanc-noir.

When Toronto made Giovinco the highest-paid Italian player at the time in 2015, the club quickly rose up the standings. The team that once finished last in 2012 was now fighting at the top of the table as a powerhouse.

Spearheaded by Giovinco and Altidore up front and anchored by captain Michael Bradley in midfield, Toronto erased the two-goal deficit to finish the first half with momentum on their side.

Nobody understands one damn thing except that he’s better than everyone else.

Shoulder-to-shoulder with Nick Hagglund in the 53rd minute, Piatti muscled the centre-back off the ball to poke it into the net as he stumbled to the ground. The Montreal Impact players raced to the corner flag to celebrate the go-ahead goal in front of the traveling away fans.

Destined to tip the scales once more, Toronto pulled one back in the 68th minute when Justin Morrow chipped a cross into the top of the box off a short corner routine. Leaping high like a superhero, Hagglund thumped a header into the low corner, giving his team the 3-2 lead—5-5 on aggregate.

Fans were damp from the freezing rain, but nobody seemed to care with such an entertaining game unraveling in front of their eyes. The 2016 Eastern Conference Final was quickly becoming a classic to be remembered by both sets of supporters, even if one side would have to eventually leave the stadium with broken hearts.

It lived up to the thrills of the previous season. On the final day of the regular season in 2015—Decision Day, as the MLS calls it—Toronto had the 1-0 lead going into halftime. If the result remained the same after 90 minutes, BMO Field would have hosted its first-ever home playoff match.

But Toronto’s home stadium would have to wait another year before any post-season football graced its grass. Drogba’s second-half brace sealed the 2-1 win for the Impact, and instead it was Montreal who would get the opportunity to have a home match at the Stade Saputo in the opening round of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Their opponent couldn’t have been anymore fitting as the Reds looked to avenge their recent loss. But four days later in the heart of Quebec, Toronto conceded three first-half goals to suffer a humiliating loss in their first playoff game after nine years of existence.

Perhaps the Reds had that defeat in mind as they faced Montreal in the playoffs the following the year, this time in a two-legged tie. Perhaps Toronto also remembered 2009–2012 when they won four consecutive Canadian Championships in the country’s domestic competition, before the Impact became an official MLS club.

Despite Toronto having the overall head-to-head lead over Montreal, every showdown is a new battle. No matter the previous result, each team walks onto the pitch looking to get the better of their opponents by putting on a show for the fans. And after Hagglund’s goal, fans were treated to extra time to see which of these Canadian rivals would move on to the MLS Cup Final.

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“Because no world trends begin here.”

Early into extra time, Giovinco had to be subbed off due to injury. Toronto would have to go for the win without their star player. The veteran midfielder Benoît Cheyrou entered the game in his place.

Not to be brought down by the loss of their talisman in such a crucial part of the match, TFC charged forward into the Montreal box. Two minutes after the sub, Cheyrou beat Bernier to the ball and headed in the go-ahead goal to give the Reds the lead late in the game.

Toronto rode that wave of momentum on the ensuing kickoff. Once they regained possession, Jonathan Osorio hit a long ball down the right wing for Altidore to chase. With two defenders hot on his tail, the American forward used a quick backheel to create space for a low cross. Tosaint Ricketts slid in to put the ball into the back of the net, and ultimately put the game to rest. The scoreboard flashed 5-2 for Toronto for the night, 7-5 on aggregate to move on to the 2016 MLS Cup Final.

The derby is unlike any other in the world. It isn’t local, with 556 kilometres (345 miles) of highway separating the two home grounds. While the clubs differ in mindset, it’s not their ideologies that makes every fixture a ferocious encounter.

The deep-seated resentment between the two clubs comes from the cities’ desires to one-up each other at any given moment. And for that, Toronto and Montreal fans are always treated to the unexpected. Every goal, win, and championship seem juicier when it’s against their mortal enemy.

It wouldn’t be long before another Canadian Classique took place. With one of the last kicks of the match, Giovinco lifted Toronto FC to victory, winning the 2017 Canadian Championship over the very same Montreal Impact.

Whether it’s Canada’s domestic cup competition or the MLS, the two teams will co-exist in hatred of each other, but for the love of enticing football.

BY JONATHAN CHENG