As Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact prepare to meet in the MLS East Final, what was once the most fierce rivalry on ice is morphing—for at least a couple of weeks—into the most compelling battle we have ever seen on and off the pitch between two Canadian soccer clubs.
The last time the Maple Leafs and Canadiens faced off in the playoffs was 1979, nine years before the MLS was even created and over two decades before franchises in Montreal (the Impact) and Toronto (TFC) were formed. A lot has changed since then, but a deep yearning for a renewed sporting rivalry between Canada's largest cities has remained.
The Montreal-Toronto hockey rivalry is the oldest in the NHL and one of the longest standing in sports, dating back to 1917. Between 1944 and 1979, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs—who are ranked first and second in all-time Stanley Cup championships, respectively—met in the playoffs 15 times and faced each other five times in the Stanley Cup Final.
Regardless of the struggles their hockey teams have endured in recent decades, the rivalry between the cities' fans and supporters across all sports has seemingly strengthened. The Maple Leafs are notoriously trudging their way through a near 50-year Stanley Cup drought, while the Canadiens haven't won a championship since 1993. The story hasn't been much different away from the rink, yet, as noticed during every Leafs and Canadiens game and (now) every TFC versus Impact match, the rivalry continues to flourish.
The Impact are only a couple years removed from being the bottom of the barrel in the MLS after putting up a futile 28-point season in 2014. Toronto FC, meanwhile, just won its first playoff game in franchise history two weeks ago after securing its first-ever playoff berth in 2015. The roads to this point for both these clubs and cities has been long and turbulent to say the least, but through it all, Canada is now guaranteed to have its first club compete for the MLS Cup.
In front of almost 30,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Toronto FC downed New York City FC 5-0 to clinch a 7-0 two-game victory on aggregate. The MLS' best player and Toronto's most overlooked superstar, Sebastian Giovinco, was incredible yet again, as he scored three to lead the Reds to their first-ever Eastern Conference final.
A year after winning MVP of the MLS and scoring a league-high 22 goals, Giovinco has been dominant again. Following another stellar regular season, he scored in the team's first playoff victory over New York City FC before lighting them up with a hat trick Sunday.
Sebastian Giovinco's hat-trick against — Serie A Pics (@SerieAPics)November 7, 2016
As for the Impact, they completed Canada's dusting of New York City teams, beating the Red Bulls 2-1 Sunday afternoon in Game 2 of the conference semifinals on goals by Ignacio Piatti in the 51st and 85th minutes to win the two-game series 3-1 on aggregate. The victory also clinched Montreal's first-ever berth in the Eastern Conference final, setting up the two-game series with TFC to begin at Olympic Stadium on Nov. 22 after the international break.
The season series was a split in 2016, with each team winning once (on the road) and playing to a 2-2 draw in the third match. The only MLS playoff matchup between the two teams was played in the 2015 knockout round, when Montreal embarrassed Toronto with a 3-0 win. Toronto has a slight edge in the all-time regular-season series, holding a 6-4-4 record.
The deep-seeded fan rivalry took a disturbing twist in August, when a massive and lewd sign—displaying a sexually graphic image with 'Montreal Sucks' inscribed underneath—made its way into BMO field during a match versus the Impact. The sign caused a social media uproar from both sides, and a verbal war between loyal club supporters. It seemed to re-spark some fire and renew the disdain that Montreal and Toronto fans have been missing so much. They need to hate each other—because when the fans are hating, it means their teams are winning.