In the world of football, there are few things that bring out the vibrancy of the game like rivalries. Whether these rivalries are cross-town derbies like the 'Old Firm' in Glasgow, or battles on the national level like Spain’s ‘El Clasico’, there is an indescribable importance that accompanies these type of matches. In North America, this sentiment is no different, but for perhaps the first time in modern history, its Canada’s game-of-games in the spotlight: Montreal Impact vs Toronto FC.
Hidden within the United States and Canada’s adolescent soccer landscape is a rivalry that has the fire and tension of a hundred-year derby, a contest which didn’t start in soccer, but serves only as its latest, and arguably most heated outlet. While the modern iterations of these two clubs have only been playing each other since 2007, Montreal and Toronto aren’t cities that had to learn to hate each other. In fact, the roots of this rivalry can be traced back hundreds of years to Napoleonic Wars and the settling of modern day Canada. Separated by only 504 kilometers, Canada’s two largest cities are culturally worlds apart to this day, and the tension between English Protestant Ontario and French Catholic Quebec has manifested itself most visibly through sport.
In 1917, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs played for the first time, and while this hockey rivalry has best represented the provincial prizefight for a century, a new generation of fans are turning to soccer. The game has a rich history in both cities, dating to the 1970’s NASL era and even beyond, but with the explosion of the game on this continent in recent years, and the league success of both sides, the rivalry now sits center stage with TFC and the Impact.
The true foundation of the rivalry came in 2009 at the “Miracle in Montreal” which saw Toronto win 6-1, overcoming a five goal deficit in aggregate to win the Canadian Cup and etch a place into Canadian soccer folklore. But with the promotion of the Montreal side to MLS in 2012, the clubs have been able to play more often and in even more meaningful games. One of the most significant of these games came in the 2015 MLS Playoffs, where Montreal wrote their own page into history when they knocked out TFC in the Ontario club’s first ever playoff appearance.
As fate would have it, Montreal Impact and Toronto FC met in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. Coupled with the usual bragging rights of this fixture is not just the ability to earn a place in MLS Cup, but to earn that place first. No Canadian team has ever played in the final, and for one to do so, they must first beat their greatest rival, across two games, with everything to play for. Make no mistake, this is the biggest game in the history of Canadian club soccer. It’s been called the ‘401 Derby’, the “Two Solitudes Derby” and even the “Canadian Classico” - but whatever it may be called, the stakes have been raised, and what’s on the line goes well beyond 90 minutes.