TORONTO — The series isn’t over. Not by a long shot.
Toronto FC heads into the second leg of its Canadian club championship semifinal with a 2-0 lead over the Montreal Impact in their pocket.
But while Montreal has never even earned so much as a draw against TFC in four games all time at Stade Saputo, site of Wednesday’s return leg, they are a much improved team and are having a very good season, so the tie is still very much in the balance.
Wednesday programming alert: Watch Montreal Impact vs. Toronto FC (live on Sportsnet ONE at 7:30pm ET/4:30pm PT) and Vancouver Whitecaps vs. FC Edmonton (live on Sportsnet ONE at 10:00pm ET/7:00pm PT) in the second leg of the Canadian club championship semifinals.
Put both first choice teams out there and the mismatch would be obvious, at least on paper. But as we saw last week, the determining factor may well be just how much of a priority each coach makes this game. Will the first team players be trotted out, or will they again mostly be rested to concentrate on league games?
Impact supporters groups showed their displeasure with the weakened team put out in the opening leg in Toronto with protests during this past Saturday’s MLS game. Will that, combined with the pressure to entertain the home fans, lead to a stronger startling lineup in the return fixture? Or will Impact coach Marco Schallibaum stick to his guns, let the kids try and win, and rest his starters for MLS?
Ryan Nelsen faces the same question of course, though more with a view to remaining competitive than any thoughts of a successful season. His options are somewhat limited by injuries, with two more players, Justin Braun and Hogan Ephraim, possibly being added to the unavailable list after Saturday’s game.
More than likely the defence will be the same as what we saw in the first leg, with Stefan Frei in goal. Ashtone Morgan and Ryan Richter will also probably play – really who else is there to play the full back spots right now? After an impressive performance last week, capped by a goal, Doneil Henry will likely be taking one of the centre back spots, and we’ll probably see Danny Califf alongside him. If Califf doesn’t play, that would be a strong indication that Nelsen is thinking of bringing him back into the first team to provide the character and experience to help out an obviously fragile defence when things get tough.
Options up front again may be limited by injury. Robert Earnshaw didn’t play last week but may get pressed into action if Braun isn’t fit, unless Nelsen wants to go with a front line of Andrew Wiedeman alongside a rookie in either Emery Welshman, Ashton Bennett or Taylor Morgan, which doesn’t really sound threatening at all.
Even without Ephraim, there are a lot more options in midfield, the most intriguing of which is of course Matias Laba. Will the new young DP make his debut? He has been playing in Argentina, so match fitness won’t be an issue, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be thrown into action right away. It may be seen as an ideal situation to ease Laba into the team, similar to how the Impact did with Daniele Paponi. On the other hand there’d be little to be gained in terms of familiarity if a lot of the regular first team are rested.
The wise thing to do for TFC would be to stick with the same plan as last week – rest a lot of the starters and hope a weakened side can still get the job done. If those who make it on to the pitch can repeat the strong performance and use it as a chance to show what they can do, they may be given a chance for more playing time in MLS.
At the very least, they will have earned themselves two more games to play in when the final comes around.