Montreal has edge over TFC going into playoffs

For the first time ever, every Canadian team will be in the MLS playoffs. James Sharman and Brendan Dunlop preview the action, including Toronto FC’s game against the red-hot Montreal Impact.

MONTREAL—Looking back on a visit in 1881, Mark Twain is said to have called Montreal, for its many churches and basilicas, the “city of 100 bells.” In truth, there were, and are today, probably many more than that.

On Sunday, Montreal was given yet another giant bell, this time at Stade Saputo, a place which often feels similar to a place of worship. The giant bell, called “The North Star” or L’Étoile du Nord, sits behind the goal on the east side of the stadium in the section of the Impact’s 1642 fan group (1642 being the year of Montreal’s founding) and rings every time the Impact score.

It rang twice on Sunday, as Didier Drogba scored twice, in 30 seconds, to help the Impact come from behind to defeat Toronto FC 2-1. The win ensured that the Impact finished third in the Eastern Conference and that it will host TFC, who finished sixth, on Thursday in the opening do-or-die playoff round.

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Despite the win, Drogba said that Toronto was still the better team “on paper” and that this week’s playoff game would be difficult. He’s probably right on both accounts, but Sunday’s thrilling win does provide the Impact with a psychological edge as they’ll be brimming with confidence, whereas TFC will have the challenge of mentally recovering from yet another defensive capitulation.

Toronto was much the better side through the opening 45 minutes. The Reds showed their superior strength in central midfield, as Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou bossed the game in the middle of the park. MLS Golden Boot winner Sebastian Giovinco, the architect of Toronto’s opening goal, was unplayable at times, fashioning scoring opportunities seemingly out of nothing.

By the end of the first half, the Impact looked lifeless. In another time, they would have likely gone on to lose; perhaps even by two, or more. But this is a completely different side under coach Mauro Biello, who’s shown the capacity to transform the complexion of games with passionate halftime team talks and astute tactical changes.

On Sunday there was both. Alluding to former coach Frank Klopas’ difficulty to transmit the right message and tone to his players, defender Laurent Ciman praised Biello for his ability to fire up the team at halftime.

“When you look at his expression you understand everything,” Ciman said. “It’s not possible that when you win or when you lose that you have the same face and that things happen in the locker room in the same way. You have to rebel when you lose and you have to be happy when you win, and that’s also something that he’s brought.”

Biello switched to a 4-3-3 and brought on Dilly Duka in the place of a lacklustre Johan Venegas, and the Impact were all over Toronto right from the second half whistle, not giving the away side a moment’s rest in possession. With Toronto on the back foot, forced to having to defend in its own end (something it doesn’t do very well at all) the game changed. Between Ignacio Piatti’s inventiveness on the ball and Drogba’s ability to free himself from defensive coverage and finish inside the box, there was simply no stopping the Impact; the goals were inevitable.

“We went back to three in the middle, and at that point we were able to get our wingers wide, we asked them to stay wide,” Biello explained. “Dilly did a good job of holding up the ball and helping our team move up and once we were able to install ourselves inside they’re half, we have dangerous players who can make the difference.”

Midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker added: “That was Biello’s team in the second half.”

In this week’s playoff rematch, Montreal will need to do more of what it did in the second half; and ultimately that means getting itself in a position where it can find Drogba in the box.

“We gave him two crosses and he scored twice,” Duka remarked.

Having home field advantage against Toronto will certainly be a big plus for the Impact. They’ve been excellent at home all season and under Biello, who is 5-0-0 at home, they’ve looked terrifying at times, especially by the way in which they can change games so quickly.

With Drogba’s presence and the ringing of the bell, playing at Stade Saputo now has an air of doomsday.

Nick Sabetti is a Montreal-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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