TFC and the Impact faced off seven times in Major League Soccer and Canadian Championship play last season, including in their epic two-game Eastern Conference final that is considered one of the best playoff series in MLS history.
The Reds always seem to get a rude reception from Impact fans whenever they play in Montreal. Coach Greg Vanney admitted that’s one of the things he enjoys about the rivalry between the two Canadian clubs, which he described as “a bit unfriendly.”
Goalkeeper Clint Irwin echoed his coach’s sentiments ahead of Wednesday’s opening leg of the Canadian Championship final between TFC and the Impact at Stade Saputo.
“There’s that natural animosity between the two provinces, going back to the hockey rivalry with the Leafs and Canadiens, and between two cities with natural differences, with the language and the culture. You feel it when you’re on the field. Both clubs are aware of it, and the playoff series last year took it to a new level,” Irwin told Sportsnet.
Despite the natural animosity between TFC and the Impact, Irwin feels there is a mutual respect as well. Matches are intense and hotly contested, but they’re not dirty and tensions rarely boil over. If they do, it’s not for very long. The competitiveness between the Canadian rivals has led to some wildly entertaining contests.
“I don’t think the games between the two teams have been ill-tempered. There were a couple of moments last year, in the Canadian Championship semifinals, where there were some nasty tackles. But overall, there hasn’t been a lot of hatred on the field. There’s just two teams who really want to win and whenever they meet, it brings out the best in both of them,” Irwin stated.
That being said, Irwin admitted he doesn’t particularly enjoy playing against Montreal, but that has nothing to do with any of the Impact players. Rather, Montreal’s counter-attacking style can cause problems and poses stiff tactical challenges for opponents.
“It’s really challenging to play against them – your error of margin is really slim because you know that one bad pass, one mistake can lead to a break out for them, and that’s how they get a lot of their scoring chances. You have to be on top of your game when you play them, Irwin warned.
“The last couple of seasons, their counter attack is something they’ve been very strong at. They’ve been very efficient with it. You have to be sharp.”
Irwin will get the call for Wednesday’s game ahead of No. 1 goalkeeper Alex Bono. Irwin was TFC’s starter at the beginning of the MLS season, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for five weeks, paving the way for Bono to take over. Vanney briefly rotated between his two goalkeepers upon Irwin’s return. But Bono has served as the Reds starter for the last month and half, with Irwin as his backup.
Irwin started both legs of the Canadian Championship semifinals against the Ottawa Fury, and has been tagged as the Reds’ goalkeeper in the cup competition for the two-game final. To his credit, Irwin has taken the lack of playing time in MLS with great professionalism.
“My focus is to win the cup. I’ve taken that on as one of our goals to accomplish this season. It doesn’t really matter at this point what games you’re playing in. If you’re on the field, the expectation is that you must perform well and win, and keep moving this club forward,” Irwin stated.
Toronto hosts Montreal in the return leg of the two-game aggregate Canadian Championship final next Tuesday at BMO Field.