Written by Benjamin Santilli (@BSantilli27):
It was a high scoring affair in Toronto on November 30th, as the two Canadian heavyweights went toe-to-toe in the second leg of the 2016 MLS Eastern Conference Final. The rivalry between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC was intense. The rivalry between the two cities extends beyond just football and dates back to the early days of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in hockey. The struggle between the French-speaking Canadian province and its English-speaking counterparts soared with the result of the first game in Montreal ending with a 3-2 advantage for the Impact.
Toronto FC had their backs against wall and needed to win by two goals to survive to reach MLS Cup. To get to the Eastern Conference Final, Montreal (5) had tackled D.C. United (4) and the top team in the East, the New York Red Bulls (1) and Brandon Wright-Phillips. Their counterparts in Ontario, Toronto FC (3), had to overcome the Philadelphia Union (6) in the first round and easily dispatched second seed NYCFC (2) in a 7-0 thrashing on aggregate.
High profile stars lined both sides ranging from young breakout stars to experienced veterans. Unfortunately for the Impact, recent disputes between Montreal leader Didier Drogba and coach Mauro Biello have gone public over the last few weeks. The Ivorian international expressed frustration with his manager towards the end of the season over starting in certain games and even took himself out of the lineup in an important league matchup against their future conference final opponents, Toronto, in the regular season. The former Chelsea star has been fighting for his position with Matteo Mancosu who is on loan from Italian side, Bologna. The Impact manager had been selecting the much younger Italian and chose instead to use Drogba off the bench. With a little bit of baggage, Montreal made their way to Toronto for the second leg of the conference finals with a one-goal lead.
The intense atmosphere at BMO Field would create an exciting match. Montreal opened the scoring in the 24th minute as a wide-open Dominic Oduro placed his name firmly on the score sheet with a well-placed shot off a pass from Mancosu to create an ominous scenario for Toronto. However, they evened-up the score at one goal apiece when Armando Cooper finished off a rebound from a poorly cleared save on a corner kick. United States star, Jozy Altidore, touched a header home past Canadian goalkeeper Evan Bush on the near post from a Giovinco corner just before halftime to level the aggregate score at 4-4. Both teams would head into the dressing room with a lot on their minds.
The momentum heavily favored Toronto and the Impact had just given up their lead on aggregate. The men in blue and black stripes came back out with a renewed vigor and in just eight minutes past the interval, Ignacio Piatti broke through the Toronto FC defense and the ball trickled in as the Impact again took the lead again. In the 68th minute, Nick Hagglund climbed the ladder and headed home the equalizer in the series and the lead in the game. The game remained 3-2 in favor of Toronto until a cross from defender Stephen Beitashour was headed past Bush by substitute Benoit Cheyrou. The Frenchman gave Toronto FC the lead on aggregate and the final blow was dealt by a sliding Tosaint Ricketts when he touched a cross by Altidore into the back of the net.
Though Montreal, threatened late in the second period of extra time, they were kept at bay by the organized Toronto defense. The story of the night for Montreal was their inability to mark on set pieces. Three of the five Toronto goals came from set pieces or plays resembling them. Toronto players had freedom to move unchecked in the box and Montreal paid for their sloppiness in the back. They squandered the lead they had acquired in the first leg. Surely, Montreal wish they could have that game back but Toronto have advanced to MLS Cup to face off against the Seattle Sounders on December 10.
The disheartening loss seemed to be the last for Didier Drogba who posted a farewell message to Impact fans after the game on Instagram, thanking them for their great support. The message from Drogba and his agent indicates that he wants to continue playing and there are many rumors tying him to Italian clubs in Serie A. He could be picked up by SSC Napoli who are reported to be interested in the 38-year-old after losing Arkadiusz Milik who was injured in Poland’s clash with Denmark in October. Is he the right fit for the Partenopei? The question of age should certainly be raised. Can the Ivorian still play top-level football or has he already announced the end of an illustrious career with his move to the MLS?