The five-year rivalry between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact has never been more intense and a new chapter will be written Sunday afternoon in the next-to-last regular-season game for both teams.
Argentine midfielder Ignacio Piatti knows how big it is for fans of both Major League Soccer clubs.
“We feel that, the Toronto-Montreal rivalry,” he said Friday. “We need to win.”
The rubber match of the teams’ three regular-season meetings could also have serious playoff implications for both sides.
A win would keep third-place Toronto (13-9-10) in the hunt for one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference, which comes with a bye to – and home-field advantage in – the conference semi-finals.
A win by the fourth-place Impact (11-10-11) would clinch a playoff spot and keep Montreal in position to be the home team in the single-game knockout round of playoffs.
A draw could be a setback for both.
“They’re emotional games playing against Toronto,” said Impact coach Mauro Biello. “Even if you take away where we are in the standings, there’s that pride factor that comes into play about who wants to be the best team.
“These are the types of games we want to be involved in.”
Saputo Stadium is sold out for the match.
“It’s fun to play in,” said Toronto goalkeeper Clint Irwin. “The fans there always give us a hard time, which is good, and seem to get into it, so I kind of enjoy playing these games.”
The teams have taken turns throwing water on each other’s aspirations this season.
On April 23, the Impact were 4-2-0 and feeling good about themselves. But a 2-0 loss at home to TFC on a pair of Sebastian Giovinco goals put them in a funk and looked to provide the league with a blueprint on how to stifle Montreal’s counter-attacking game.
On. Aug. 27, TFC were riding a wave that saw them post six wins and a tie in a seven-game stretch until they were beaten 1-0 at home by Montreal. Piatti scored in the 73rd minute despite his side being down a man when Calum Mallace was sent off just before the intermission.
Giovinco was injured in that game, but is set to return on Sunday, although it was unclear if he will start. TFC is coming off a 2-1 loss to D.C. United on Oct. 1, just before the international break, and is winless in its past four games.
“They’re a tough team to play at home,” said Irwin. “We’ve just got to be sure not to let them out on the counter-attack because they’re very dangerous there.
“At the same time, make them work to break us down. So it’s going to be a tough game. It’s going to be a great atmosphere and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Impact looked to be sinking out of a playoff spot until they posted a pair of wins ahead of the break – a 3-1 home win over San Jose followed by a 1-0 victory in Orlando on Oct. 2.
There is a good chance that 38-year-old star Didier Drogba will be used as a substitute while newcomer Matteo Mancosu gets the start for a third game in a row.
Players away with their national teams trickled back during the week, with Impact centre back Laurent Ciman on a high after starting two games for Belgium and earning praise for his play from coach Roberto Martinez. Former coach Marc Wilmots nailed him to the bench during the European Championship in June.
Ciman said he has extra motivation to help the Impact go as long as possible in the playoffs – so he won’t be sitting idle when Belgium selects players for the next international break in November.
“If I want to be part of it, I need the adventure here in Montreal to continue,” he said. “I still feel a bit of jet lag, but I’ll be ready for Sunday.”
Discipline could be key for Montreal. In their pst three meetings with TFC, including two Amway Canadian Championship matches in the summer, they have had a man sent off.
TFC sits two points back of co-leader New York City, which plays at D.C., and the New York Red Bulls, who play at Columbus. D.C. is only one point behind the Impact.
Montreal ends the season at New England while TFC hosts Chicago, both on Oct. 23.