While rival Vancouver rides along atop the Western Conference as clearly the class of Canada, the Eastern representatives, Toronto FC and Montreal, are mired in a slog of frustration. Both are embroiled in the playoff race from which six Eastern Conference teams will emerge, and neither is close to clinching.
Both teams are under .500, but so weak – or balanced, if you prefer – is the Eastern Conference that they are in the playoff tier. Fifth-place Toronto (11-13-4, 37 points) is four points head of Montreal (9-11-6, 33 points), with the Impact having played two fewer games.
Their home records are nearly the same, and neither is overpowering. Toronto (7-4-1) has played one fewer home game than the Impact (7-4-2). And at home they will be for the next few weeks.
On Saturday, Toronto starts a run of five straight BMO Field dates against Colorado and the Impact plays New England to kick off a three-match stint at Stade Saputo. The MLS schedule-makers back-loaded TFC home games because renovations to BMO Field necessitated it start the league schedule with seven road games. Two Montreal early-season home games were moved to September to help the Impact prepare for Concacaf Champions League matches.
In its expanded stadium, TFC is averaging crowds of 24,645, which is less than the capacity of 30,000 yet several thousand more fans per game than could previously be accommodated. Montreal stormed to the CCL finals while drawing large crowds at the covered Olympic Stadium, which was used to alleviate weather concerns.
Now comes crunch time, especially for TFC, which despite big payrolls and big names on the roster and coaching staff in its MLS history has never qualified for the playoffs. Montreal just booted its head coach, Frank Klopas, in the wake of a massive midseason signing of Didier Drogba that triggered a frenzy of publicity for a team in desperate need of good news.
Unfortunately, the track record of both teams is that of ripping through coaching changes. TFC leader Greg Vanney is the ninth head coach (counting interim stints by Chris Cummins and Nick Dasovic) the team has employed in eight MLS seasons. Montreal’s Mauro Biello, the interim head coach, is the fourth man to lead the Impact since it started MLS operations just three years ago.
Both should make the playoffs, seeing as each played three games against Orlando City and New York City FC, the 2015 expansion teams that are well below .500 but still in the playoff hunt thanks in large part to the struggles of their Canadian foes. TFC fans will certainly celebrate their first playoff appearance should it be attained, and there really won’t be any excuse if somehow it doesn’t.
The Red Bulls, unlike in past years, and D.C. United have zero million-dollar players, and only Jermaine Jones ($2.8 million base) takes a big salary from the Revs. Crew SC has just Federico Higuain ($1.175 million base) in the realm of seven figures. Drogba’s deal is worth a reported $3 million for the rest of this season and 2016, and the massive contracts doled out to Jozy Altidore ($4.75 million), Michael Bradley ($6 million), and Sebastian Giovinco ($5.6 million) crank up the expectations for TFC beyond just making the playoffs.
The expansion clubs have spent heavily, too, but they are still grappling with the growing pains most new teams must endure. And fans in both cities, rather than looking at the teams below theirs, can’t fail to notice the increasing gap separating those nearer the top.
Fourth-place Columbus, with 44 points, is seven points clear of TFC, which could wipe out that gap by running off a few home victories and probably needs to beat Crew SC at BMO Oct. 17 to achieve that feat. Of TFC’s five remaining opponents at home, only two – Columbus and the Red Bulls – are in the playoff tier. In addition to the Rapids, TFC plays Eastern stragglers Chicago and Philly.
Montreal has announced its game against New England is a sellout and will be a third straight home game to draw the capacity of 20,801. The Impact may be trending in the right direction; it returned from a long road trip with California with two points, courtesy of a 0-0 tie with the Galaxy last Saturday and a 1-1 deadlock with San Jose Wednesday.
Rebounding from that arduous trip against one of the league’s hottest teams – the Revs have won six straight matches – is a severe test, but despite holding games in hand Biello and his players know they are just one point ahead of Orlando in the standings. A stumble here or there in a run of home games is not uncommon in MLS -- just ask the Quakes, whose playoff quest suffered greatly when they took just two points from three consecutive home games and have traveled cross-country play NYCFC at Yankee Stadium -- and would open the door for someone else to snag the sixth spot.
Yet the pressure on TFC is far greater and just making the playoffs would be only the start of appeasing its rabid and somewhat disgruntled fan base. Losing to NYCFC, 2-0, Wednesday didn’t improve the mood, especially since TFC had stumbled at home to New England, 3-1, three days prior. TFC has lost three straight and while Colorado props up the Western Conference, it has only three fewer points than TFC with the same number of games played.
Giovinco is among the frontrunners for league MVP -- he’s among the league leaders in goals (17) and assists (13) but in his last six games has scored just one goal and registered three assists. He’s drawn a league-high 73 fouls yet is also the leader in shots taken, 152, by a large margin. (Top scorer Kei Kamara -- 20 goals --- of Columbus is second in shots with 122). The diminutive Italian has not shied away from his responsibility of leading TFC into the postseason yet needs help if he and his club are to finish the season strongly.
It’s possible that both teams will have clinched playoff spots by the time they play at Stade Saputo Oct. 25 on the final day of the regular season. Yet questions about where the teams are headed will persist.