Who better to talk to about the 20/401 derby from a Montreal perspective than Patrice Bernier? After all no-one in blue has played in more, 25 (all competitions), than the former captain.
We chatted in the stands this morning as training was coming to a close, at the venue for tomorrow night’s encounter, the 24th in MLS regular and post-season play (Montreal are 9-10-4).
It’s a fixture where depth of feeling and levels of intensity need no explanation to someone with strong roots in the city ...
PB: The derby rivalry with Toronto for somebody who is born here is almost natural, but [even for others] once you join the club you understand that the two teams have different philosophies, the way each wants to do things and operate as clubs, the two cities have different approaches, already language-wise it’s there and the number one aspect when you come here, is that you understand the culture.
The games, I got to play in a lot of them, and every time they just built up more and more.
Editor - Is it different to the hockey derby, or the same?
PB - (pauses, thinks about his one, and ... ) Yeah, maybe the hockey derby because they played against each other so often when there was only six teams in the league, so it also developed and the teams were so close. But here (soccer) it’s on a different level.
It’s on a different level because you have so many different aspects. Things change in respect of the philosophies of the clubs. TFC decide to invest in a lot of players. A lot of money. They became the profile club of the league. Almost went from the doghouse to be one of the most prestigious clubs in the league, without necessarily winning a title.
You know to have rivalries you need to have villains and heroes. And for Toronto some of us are the villains, and for us, most of them are the villains also. And now you have players that you identify that you dislike a bit, and you have moments that generate why I don’t want to like Toronto .... like little scuffles in the game, or sometimes some players are a little bit too ‘cry-baby’ or too often in front of the referees, if you take Giovinco going down and Michael (Bradley) being always in front of the referee ....
And then you need moments. And for me the biggest moment was 2015 (Play-off), because it was their first play-offs and it was our first play-offs at home, having previously reached the play-offs in 2013. So it was now all about who was going to be the most successful. Before it was trying to knock one or other down, because one was trying for play-offs and the other was having a bad season.
Editor - So that was the most significant derby so far, to your mind?
PB: That game for me highlighted the rivalry even more. For players who were not from here to understand that hey! OK, they’re all talking about the Giovoncos, the Bradleys the Altidores, but we had Piatti, Drogba and we had other personalities, even if you can consider myself ... so at the same time it was a case of ‘why are we talking more about them than we are about ourselves?’.
And that game, for us, in terms of maybe sending out a message [to Toronto], ‘You maybe bought your way here, but on the field we made the play-offs before you guys, despite being in the league a lesser number of years’.
And then our victory ignited Toronto. Because they came in, it was their first time making the play-offs, and they got thumped! I think it stirred them on for the following season.
Then when you got to 2016, that was the climax. Both teams progressed. [Each] did it differently, they had a very good regular season in general, we finished off strongly as we usually do, and then we met in the Eastern Conference Final. And it was again all about who does it best. Not as, ‘I’m knocking you down’. It was who does it best in terms of them investing, or in terms of us having star players and surrounding them in another [different] way of building a roster. And on top of this it was, who was going to be the first team to win MLS Cup from Canada.
Editor - There must have been some regrets after the first-leg of the Conference Final that night, because at one stage you were 3-0 in front ...
PB - Yeah, because the thing that I didn’t like is that we won 3-2, but everybody was talking about it like we’d lost. And psychologically, yes we conceded two goals, but we still won the game. We showed for 60 minutes that we were a head above them. Yes it was a regret because we let them back in, but at the end of the day, it’s a two-legged series. So we won [on the night], but the mentality, the mood, that came out of there was ... ‘the Impact let that go’.
And so when you are going to the next game, are you going in confident and dominant with your chest out, or you’re like, ‘Man, if we allow them one goal, it’s 3-3 and we have to score another one ....?’ And it’s always .... these games are cat and mouse, and at the high level it’s all in the head most of the time.
Editor - You’re not the type of player that would often lose his discipline (at this point, Patrice anticipates my next question like one of those midfield interceptions he used to make) ...
PB - No! But I did get two red cards against Toronto.
We both laugh ... eventually I continue ...
Editor - ... the only two red cards you received in your Impact career were each against Toronto, and each brandished by the same referee, Mr Gantar. Any comments on that?
PB - Like I said before, a rivalry is about emotional history. I am more calculated. I would say I’m a calm composed person, but that rivalry for me means I have to defend what Montreal is, like a kid from Montreal being raised the soccer way, so those games, it’s all about turf.
For me, yeah I had great moments where I scored a fantastic goal in the 3-0 play-off v TFC, we beat them 6-0 here, and then I’ve had moments where yeah, I had red cards. Straight red cards, not two yellows. It just shows the intensity.
Editor - How did you feel when Toronto won MLS Cup?
PB - That year? Yeah, it was written. You could see the build-up of how 2015, 2016, then 2017, they were on a mission. Now, did we ignite that? I believe so. They had a plan, but I think the fact that we beat them in 2015 [was key].
But I think in 2016, with us being on the cusp of going there [MLS Final], I was probably more happy that they lost that year, because for me it was like who’s going to be the first team to win from Canada. The following season they had a great season, they won, but my regret will always be that in 2016, I felt that the ingredients were there: Canadian club, Montreal, Canadian captain, Canadian coach ... had we won MLS Cup it would’ve been an all-Canadian affair. Perfect! While TFC is kinda’ like the New York City of Canada, and it is the flavour of an American team, kind of.
Editor - So, who would you have said was your most difficult derby opponent?
PB - Victor Vazquez. Because he was always one step ahead of everyone. Him and Higuain (Columbus Crew) are two players I played in MLS against that were most difficult opponents.
Giovinco, I can’t say you knew his play, he was unpredictable, but I kinda’ knew [what he might do], but Vazquez for me as a midfielder, was hard to grasp. He’s good at a lot of things and he’s one-step-ahead in his head. So how do you lock him down? That was my biggest question mark.
Vazquez was the missing link in that team, when he came they won in 2017. He wasn’t there the year before. Giovinco was always hard, Altidore, Michael also. For me the game’s about chess, its about moving pieces, where you gotta’ go, and how you gotta’ think, but Vazquez was always able to be unpredictable in his behaviours and thought process.
Editor - What about Giovinco/Altidore? Do you think Altidore is as effective without Giovinco alongside?
PB - People give a lot of credit to Giovinco, because he scores a lot of goals. But they were a dynamic duo, and when one was missing, something was missing from Toronto. You could see Giovinco trying to do more when Altidore wasn’t there, and Altidore trying to do more when Giovinco wasn’t there, and in the end it went off.
The thing is Giovinco was so good on free-kicks. Right foot, left foot, his low centre of gravity, even if you were close on him, he could cut you on a dime, while Altidore .... well, it’s like the twins, the movie ‘Twins’ with Danny DeVito, one is all power and the other is all brains. So it was a very good match. It’s one of the rare duos in MLS, there’s not been too many duos in this league that have been so dynamically effective.
Editor - Evan Bush will equal your club record tomorrow for MLS regular and post-season 20/401 derby appearances, which stands at 15. Just a word about Evan’s contribution to the Impact ...
PB - I’m happy for Evan. He was third goalkeeper in 2012, then second in 2013, got some games in 2014 and became number one. He’s been at the club now, I think, for 9 seasons, and it’s normal that a goalie sets the records because they tend not to get replaced and tend to start every game.
But he’s progressed in terms of playing. You could see this year that he’s doing less. That’s because less shots have had to be faced, but he’s making good saves at the right moment. And in terms of a leader you can see he’s grown in terms of the presence he has on the field and in the locker-room. Even though he is not the captain, I’m pretty sure he is part of the ‘captain group’.
And he’s a guy that can also pass along what it means to play Toronto FC having played them, even when he was in USL.
Editor - It’s good to have leaders in your team even if they’re not the captain, so he’s one of those ...
PB - Ahhh ... the captain for me has always been [important] ... yes there’s a captain, but there’s always four or five captains, because you need leaders with different aspects and different personalities. And he’s definitely one who knows the club very well, knows the city very well and he knows this rivalry very well.
Editor - Last question: what does Montreal need to do tomorrow night to win this game?
PB - Be patient, because Toronto FC is all about build-up. And they play the ball, they are very good at keeping the ball, they are probably one of the teams with the highest percentage of passing success. But what Montreal is known for is counter-attack and transition play. I don’t know if Orji is going to play, but it’s when you win that ball, be efficient, just like they were against Portland. If they are at that level, they can put Toronto on the ropes.
It’s just being patient, because sometimes you want the ball back faster, but sometimes it’s best just to let the other team have the ball, let them come higher up, because you’ll have more space to go and attack them, so I would say just be patient ... and lethal, when you have a chance.
Editor - Is this the most passionate derby you’ve played in? (squeezing in one last question)
PB - Yeah, I played derbies in Kaiserslautern, Denmark, but this is different for me because this derby, this rivalry, has a personal feeling about it. The other ones I understood them when I got there, and when I played. When I played in Norway, the Rivalry of the North, you know, the fans tell you, ‘Hey! You can’t lose this game’.
Here, nobody needs to tell me I don’t need to lose this game, because I know the guys from the other side who are Canadian, I know there’s always bragging rights, I know the fans and what it means to them, and I know for Montreal people, just to have that little edge on, to say, ‘You know what, you’ve maybe spent the dollars, but you still can’t beat us!’
Editor - So Remi doesn’t have a job to do tomorrow night to get the boys up for the game?
PB - Yeah, he has a job, but it’s Sam’s job, it’s Evan Bush’s job [to fire them up]. And the others, they played at Toronto last year to understand what it’s about.
It’s not just the three points. It’s more than that ...