MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact’s Major League Soccer playoff hopes are fading, but they still have a championship to play for this month.
"I don’t know if it saves the season but still, it’s a trophy," Impact defender Jukka Raitala said on the eve of the first leg of the Canadian Championship final against surging Toronto FC.
The slumping Impact will host the three-time defending Canadian champions on Wednesday night. The return leg is Sept. 25 at BMO Field in Toronto.
Montreal, three points out of a playoff spot in MLS’s Eastern Conference, enters the final as the underdog. Toronto is fourth in the East and in good position to return to the post-season after a one-year absence.
"That’s fine, we respect that," Impact head coach Wilmer Cabrera said when asked about being the underdog.
"For us, if we are the underdog, that’s totally fine. (There are) no underdogs in a final. Because when you make the final, it’s for something. They made the final, the players, and they know they have a chance."
Impact players are relishing a shot to knock off Toronto.
"It would mean a lot," Impact midfielder Samuel Piette. "We’re not having a lot of success lately, so to go win a title especially against a rival that are on a good run right now. Just starting by Wednesday, getting a good result will give us confidence for the game after that in LA. And give us an extra push for the games left in MLS."
The Impact last won the Voyageurs Cup as Canadian champs in 2014, which led to a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2015. The Vancouver Whitecaps took the title in 2015 before Toronto emerged victorious the past three years.
"It’s a breath of fresh air," Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush said. "It’s an opportunity to turn the page from the last weekend and the last couple weeks and really focus in on something that’s important to us. It’s important to the club, it’s important to the fans."
The Impact are reeling following a 1-0 loss to last-place FC Cincinnati at home on Saturday. The loss dealt a major blow to their playoff hopes as they are three points back of the final playoff spot — held by the New England Revolution, who also have a game in hand — with three games to play.
The loss also led to Impact owner Joey Saputo speaking to players in the locker room afterward.
"I think that MLS is still not over," Raitala said. "We have three games to go. It’s still possible to reach the playoffs. From now, we’re focusing on tomorrow and then we go game by game."
Cabrera wouldn’t divulge his starting goalkeeper until an hour before the game. Goalkeepers James Pantemis and Clement Diop have both seen time in the tournament, but Bush is a possibility.
"I’ll leave that up to Wilmer if he wants to address it," Bush said.
As it has done in the past, Toronto is likely to rotate its roster for the cup competition. Head coach Greg Vanney sees Wednesday’s contest "as the first half of a bigger game."
"We don’t have to win the tournament (Wednesday)," he said. "We need to make sure that they get nothing going and we try to snatch a goal away and stay solid defensively."
Vanney has entrusted cup goalkeeping duties to backup Alex Bono, who was unbeaten in TFC’s 5-0 aggregate win over Ottawa in the semifinal. Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Pozuelo and Chris Mavinga were among the starters that left practice early Tuesday, leaving others to prepare for the game.
Captain Michael Bradley, who has lifted the Voyageurs Cup the last three years, is looking forward to Wednesday’s encounter.
"These are fun games, for sure," he said after training Tuesday. "I’ve said it a lot over the last few years, these Toronto-Montreal games are special. There’s something in the air when these two teams walk out onto the field. It’s not made up, it’s not commercialized. There’s no need to play (the rivalry) up because it’s reality, it’s there.
"We’ve always enjoyed these games. We’ve had some incredible games, incredible series with them. The contrast in the cities, the clubs, the colours, the philosophies in some way. Yeah, it makes for interesting, entertaining games. We have big respect for them. I like to think they have big respect for us, but when we step on the field these are big games."
Toronto, unbeaten in its last nine games (5-0-4) in all competitions, will leave Montreal for Los Angeles for Saturday’s match with LAFC.