Montreal jumped on Canadian rival Toronto early and often in their MLS playoff match Thursday at BMO Field, and easily rode through the second half unscathed to post a 3-0 victory.
Captain Patrick Bernier rolled a shot into the TFC net 19 minutes after kickoff and Ignacio Piatti and Didier Drogba added the goals before halftime that killed off any realistic chance TFC had of coming back.
As the No. 3 seed, Montreal draws second-place Columbus in the Eastern Conference semifinals that start Sunday at Stade Saputo. Top seed New York opens its series against D.C. United at RFK Stadium on the same day.
Here are three takeaways from a very lopsided match that ruthlessly exposed TFC’s shortcomings:
1. Piatti romps through TFC at will in first half.
Much pregame speculation had centered on how Montreal could possibly cope with TFC attacker Sebastian Giovinco, the MVP-to-be that entered the record books as the first man to lead the league in goals (22) and assists (16) in the same season.
Instead, it was TFC that couldn’t contain Piatti, who ran boldly through and around challenges from the first minute and prior to scoring in the 19th had already forced a save with a low shot, banged another attempt off the woodwork, and buzzed yet another a yard wide.
If it was holding mid Benoit Cheyrou who was supposed to help subdue Piatti and Co., he didn’t do his job, but TFC’s core creaked throughout the first half. Piatti created the first goals when took a short pass from Nigel Reo-Coker and raced upfield into the TFC half to release Bernier with a through ball he steered past Chris Konopka.
Clearly rattled by Montreal’s explosive start, TFC gave away the second goal. Under moderate pressure from Drogba and Piatti, centerback Josh Williams slipped trying to reach a square pass, and Piatti pounced to roll a shot past Konopka’s desperate lunge. Drogba tacked on the third goal after Bernier collected the rebound his own cleared shot and served it from the right wing for Drogba, completely unmarked, to bang home at the far post
2. Captain leads the way.
Drogba, 37, is just a year younger than Bernier, who was installed as captain in 2014 after solid showings during Montreal’s first two MLS seasons but had struggled through injuries and dips in form to keep a first-team place this year. Of his 20 appearances, only six were starts, and he came off the bench to play just 20 minutes combined in the last two regular-season games. But in a do-or-die situation, he came out ready.
Stationed in a three-man midfield with Marco Donadel and Reo-Coker, Bernier turned back the clock to range upfield and completely unhinge TFC on both sides of the midfield line. A native of Quebec who left the country in 2003 to play in Norway, Germany and Denmark, Bernier was named team MVP in 2012 and tied for the assist lead with eight in 2013.
He crisply finished with a shot under Konopka for the first goal and he belied his age to chase down Justin Morrow’s goal-line clearance to set up the third goal. With a nifty move, he evaded Morrow’s challenge and waited patiently for space to clear at the back post, where lurked one of the modern game’s most lethal scorers, age notwithstanding.
In August, Bernier took a few days off after his wife posted on Facebook an angry objection to him being stationed on the bench. The incident preceded the dismissal of head coach Frank Klopas and the Impact’s resurgence with Drogba in the lineup.
Bernier came off in the 77th minute to a rousing ovation. On two days’ rest he might not recover in time to start the semifinal opener on Sunday. But on a great night for soccer in Montreal it was a Canadian stalwart (53 caps) who made it happen.
3. TFC needs a Ciman, or something.
No playoff team conceded more than TFC’s 58 goals, and fans rightfully wondered why at least some money wasn’t spent to buttress the league’s highest-priced trio of attacking talent.
That issue will have to be addressed going forward. Montreal took vital steps well before the season started. To help it navigate the Concacaf Champions League as well as MLS, Montreal during the winter signed Belgian defender Laurent Ciman, who quickly established a reputation for smart decisions, solid tackles and intelligent use of the ball. He didn’t always start as he adjusted to the weather and travel and officiating and other elements unique to MLS, but his strong, steady play contrasted sharply with TFC’s ineptitude. (And his base salary is a reasonable $370,000).
On the first goal, Jackson missed a risky tackle at midfield and Piatti raced into the huge gap behind him to set up Bernier. Ahmed Kantari and Williams were co-conspirators on the second goal. On the third there were eight – eight! – TFC field players in the penalty area, and none of them were within yards of Drogba when the ball came to him.
TFC management and head coach Greg Vanney can be commended for ending a playoff drought that dates back to the team’s MLS launch in 2007. And TFC did bounce back a seven-game, season-opening road trip necessitated by BMO Field expansion and renovations. But the league’s largest payroll needs restructuring this winter.
TRIVIA. Their goals against Toronto FC have moved Bernier, Piatti, and Drogba into higher slots on the team’s all-time MLS scoring list (including playoffs). Marco Di Vaio scored 34 goals in three seasons (2012-14). Piatti and Bernier are tied for second with 14, and Drogba’s goal tied him with teammate Andres Romero and ex-Impact midfielder Felipe (now a Red Bull) at 12, one ahead of Jack McInerney, who was traded to Columbus in August when the Impact signed Drogba.
Oct. 29 in Montreal
Montreal 3 Toronto FC 0. Goals: Bernier (Piatti) 19, Piatti 33, Drogba (Bernier) 39.
Montreal – Bush; Toia, Ciman, Cabrera, Oyongo; Bernier (Bekker, 77), Donadel, Reo-Coker (Mallace, 71), Piatti, Drogba, Duka (Oduro, 84).
Toronto FC – Konopka; Jackson, Williams, Kantari (Zavaleta, 46), Morrow, Findley (Gomez, 72) Bradley, Cheyrou, Osorio (Delgado, 70), Giovinco, Altidore.
Referee: Baldomero Toledo.