MLS Preview: History made with All-Canada Eastern final

The majority of battles between Montreal and Toronto have been waged in rinks, on football fields, and in the halls of Parliament, but this month the pro soccer operations will strive to increase their prominence.

Toronto needed a decade of play to register its first playoff victory last month; Montreal got its first playoff win last season by thumping TFC, 3-0, in the Knockout Round. This series has fans and pundits in two cities as well as two countries eager for a rivalry rematch.

“Last year was just a small taste of that,” said TFC coach Greg Vanney in a conference call with reporters, “and obviously that first match, which was the play-in match, we started extremely poorly in that game and paid dearly for that, but I thought it was just a taste of the rivalry that is continuing to build between these two franchises.”

Montreal deemed its home leg, to be played Tuesday, important enough to move it from Stade Saputo (capacity: 20,801) to the Olympic Stadium, where a crowd of about 60,000 is expected. A week from Wednesday the second leg will be played at BMO Field, of which the capacity has been increased to about 36,000 through the installation of temporary seating for the Grey Cup championship game.

Combined crowds of more than 90,000 are possible, despite both games being played midweek, which is a staggering number in most parts of the world. For a country whose national team has fallen on hard times -- Canada last played in a World Cup three decades ago -- landing a representative in the MLS Cup final is a badly needed jolt of accomplishment. Montreal, as the lowest seed, cannot host MLS Cup, but TFC is second on the list behind Colorado.

“Yeah, I think definitely there's a big buzz in the city here about this game,” said Montreal head coach Mauro Biello. “I think to have possibly 60,000 fans pushing us, obviously for us it could help us and motivate us even more to get the results that we want versus a very good team. And like I said, it's great for soccer in the city and also in this country.”

Beyond the political and cultural aspects, this is a matchup of diverse coaching philosophies and squads that feature of true superstar as well as a clear identity. Ignacio Piatti is an ideal focal point of the Impact’s counterattacking game; Sebastian Giovinco has no peer as catalyst, creator, and clinical finisher headlining perhaps the league’s most balanced team.

So beyond the obvious virtues of Piatti and Giovinco both of whom didn’t make the cut of three MVP finalists -- how might this series be decided?

DROGBA GIVES WAY TO MANCOSU. Rather than the Ivorian international who has won international and domestic trophies with several European clubs, a loanee from Bologna has bolstered the Impact attack.

Back problems and a temper tantrum have kept Didier Drogba on the bench for nearly a month, yet Montreal has rung up seven goals in the playoffs while dispatching D.C. United (on the road) and the Red Bulls (in the two-leg conference semis).

Piatti has scored three playoff goals and so has Matteo Mancosu, who at 31 is seven years younger and much more mobile than Drogba. Starting Mancosu up top in a 4-1-4-1 formation or variation thereof enables him to carve out space for the crafty Piatti on the left and speedy Dominic Oduro on the right, and also open up passing lanes for the midfield trio. His link-up play is excellent and as a classic finisher he gets on the end of what his teammates put together.

“I think he's adapted very well in the group,” says Biello of the July arrival who in the playoffs has already matched his regular-season output of three goals (in 15 games, seven as starter). “Sometimes it's not easy coming in halfway point of the season and adapting to a group, to a culture, to a city, but he's responded well.

“Whether he came off the bench and gave us that added spark, whether he started games, he's given us a different look up front in terms of his profile, in terms of his qualities, to be able to get in behind, being able to constantly be in movement.”

The two-week international break has improved the fitness of Drogba, whose 10-minute cameo in the playoffs included an assist in the 2-1 triumph at Red Bull Arena that secured a 3-1 win on aggregate. He scored 10 goals and logged six assists during the regular season and if truly on board with a spot on the bench, is a valuable weapon.

FROM GRASS TO TURF. Both teams normally play on grass, so the shift to artificial turf – as well as a huge crowd -- should favor the Impact, which in its history has played several league and international matches at the Big O.

Most notable is a 4-2 loss to Club America in the 2014-15 Concacaf Champions League finals in front of 61,004 fans. Otherwise, its recent record in the dome is excellent: it beat Pachuca and Alajuelense in the knockout rounds leading up to the CCL finals, and early in the current season topped the Red Bulls, 3-0, and Columbus, 2-0, before moving back to Stade Saputo.

The surface is unpredictable, fast in many areas but notoriously dead in others. It is laid atop a concrete floor, so it’s not easy on the feet, ankles and knees. 

Montreal is renowned for its shrewd counterattacking abilities based on absorbing pressure, but it may turn the tables against a foe unfamiliar with the footing. However, it must also guard against conceding an away goal that TFC can take home for the second leg. 

“And pressure-wise, obviously it is going to be on us as much as it's going to be on them,” said Giovinco. “As far as the surface, of course, we would like to get to this point to such important games and playing the best possible conditions, but that's just one factor among many others in the game.”

THE MATCHUPS IN MIDFIELD. Mancosu isn’t the only midseason arrival to take a place in Montreal’s starting lineup: Argentine midfielder Hernan Bernadello, a member of the 2013 and 2014 teams, returned in July and has started 15 games, including all three in the postseason.

He normally plays alongside veteran Patrice Bernier in the central midfield slots in front of holding mid Marco Donadel. Of the group, Bernadello is the youngest at 30 and since the combined ages of those three players is 100, they are not equipped to run opponents off the park. How they cope with the TFC midfield anchored by Michael Bradley will determine how many passes and crosses find their way to Giovinco and Jozy Altidore as well as the chances conjured up for the Impact’s attacking trio.

“But this second time around he already knew Montreal, knew the club very well and came in,” says Bernier of Bernadello. “And you saw after a few games, he got adjusted very well. And you know that you see he's feisty, he's very good in defensive one-on-ones and also good at passing.”

The 3-5-2 formation TFC has used in the playoffs gets most of its notice for the three-man back line anchored by Drew Moor, who won an MLS Cup with Colorado in 2010. It also gives the team a three-man central midfield of Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper along with Bradley, as well as wingbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, who have a lot of experience as outside backs in four-man defenses. 

When the teams tied 2-2 at Stade Saputo Oct. 16, Vanney played a 4-4-2 with Marky Delgado taking up a spot in a midfield diamond and Moor paired at centerback with Eriq Zavaleta. In the conference finals Vanney could opt for either system, or switch back and forth during the series or even within a game.

“They're not totally dissimilar systems, though they appear so when you write them down on paper,” said Vanney, “but the way we move in them and various things, they're not so far away from each other from just the principal standpoint.

“But we use them now and again because the guys have gotten comfortable in it. We've used the diamond mostly against Montreal and have had a lot of success with that as well. So we feel comfortable being able to go in either direction.” In the past several years a handful of teams have ridden a late-season hot streak all the way into the MLS Cup final.
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