As ‘home’ openers go, it’s as tough and as strange as they come...
The pandemic dominates the picture. Not only is it the overwhelming condition that’s ensured untold volumes of player unavailability hampering pre-season preparation, it’s also forced Montreal to relocate to a completely other football market, sunny Florida.
Yet while there are worse places, it’s not home, and like last season Montreal fans are being forced to watch their exiled favourites only via the the silver screen or through the wonders of wifi.
Arch-rival Toronto FC make the short trip from their own temporary Orlando base to Quebec’s little corner of Fort Lauderdale tomorrow to play in a pink stadium, presumably disguised in blue.
Such are the vagaries of pandemic football in north America.
The Reds are fairly warm favourites. Most bookies go ‘evens’ about the visitors. You can get Montreal at two and a half times your money (5/2), while the draw is 2/1.
TFC’s preparation has carried greater substance, despite the club being hit by corona-cases several weeks ago, preventing several of the club’s players from departing on international duty.
As a result, corona apart, their preparation has been more consistent than Montreal’s. Even more key, TFC have two competitive fixtures under their belt, an impressively successful, double-header taming of Mexican 2020 Clausura Champions, CD Leon in the Concacaf Champions League.
Just yesterday, Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin spoke of how much of an advantage that is.
“Every MLS coach that hasn’t got real live action in an elimination type game like the Champions League, is wondering what they’re going to look like when the opening whistle blows.
“Certainly to have live action, at least at the start, IS an advantage.”
Montreal has played only two friendlies and coach Wilfried Nancy has a significant challenge in building strategy to prevail over the club’s next 90 minutes, his first measurable action in charge (and the club’s first under the new name).
Players gel over a period of time. The coach can of course provide influence, but understanding, relationships and cohesion cannot be forced, they all form over a period of time. With ten new arrivals at the club and the dynamic, if thankfully not the philosophy, now much different to what it was last November, it’s difficult to imagine how Toronto’s experienced, settled side can be troubled.
Although it’s conceivable Montreal may start the game with only three debutants (I’m suggesting Kamal Miller, Kiki Struna and Djordje Mihailovic), deeper consideration still uncovers relatively new arrivals in Mustafa Kizza on the left side and Mason Toye, the only striker to score during pre-season.
I expect Toye to get the starting vote thanks to his goals against Tampa Bay. But if he or Kizza have not yet covinced Wilfried Nancy, then those slots will go to another pair of debutants, in 6ft 6in Bjorn Johnsen and the inexperienced Zorhan Bassong.
Contrast that to Toronto’s established but aging squad, where familiarity poses no concerns whatsoever.
And while injuries are a concern for the Ontario men - they had no fewer than ten players unavailable for selection for their 2nd Leg with Leon midweek - they still possess a promising batch of youngsters who did a lot of growing up in that double-header with the Mexican Champions.
Yet therein could lie the good news for Montreal. Players on the Toronto injured list for Wednesday’s Leon match-up, included Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonathan Osorio (record-holder for Canadian Classique derby apps), Ayo Akinola, Tsubasa Endoh, Eriq Zavaleta and Chris Mavinga.
Without Altidore and Akinola the goal threat is tempered. Patrick Mullins scored the first against Leon, but represents a less potent source than the other two.
Central defence may concern also. Although 20-year-old Trinidadian Luke Singh did well in his first-ever start against the Mexicans, should either Mavinga or Zavaleta be fit for Saturday, either one would go straight in to partner Gonzalez.
And finally.... there are omens that lean well towards the Montreal camp. We don’t know how many debutants we’ll see enter the fray, Saturday, but once upon a time, the Impact blooded no fewer than seven in a big game including a completely new back four.... Remember the away leg against Pachuca? That 2-2 draw under Frank Klopas was achieved with the help of seven new players.
And Saturday would not represent the first time a new Montreal head-coach achieved his first MLS win over a Toronto side coming off the back of a big CCL success over formidable Mexican opposition.
On St Patrick’s day 2018, TFC were fresh from having eliminated Tigres when Remi Garde got off the mark for Montreal, thanks to a solitary Jeisson Vargas strike at the Big O.
Here we go again.... Enjoy the season...!
Projected Line-ups -
CFM - Diop - Brault-Guillard, Struna, Binks, Miller, Kizza - Wanyama, Piette, Mihailovic - Toye, Quioto.
Bench - Pantemis, Bassong, Camacho, Waterman, Sejdic, Hamdy, Johnsen, Torres, Hurtado
TFC - Westberg - Laryea, Gonzalez, Zavaleta, Auro Jnr - Bradley, Priso, Delgado, Okello - Mullins, Schaffelburg
Bench - Bono - Morrow, Singh, Fraser, DeLeon, Dorsey, Marshall-Rutty, Altidore, Gallardo, Peruzza.
Match Officials -
Referee: Ismail Elfath
Asst Refs: Corey Parker, Jason White
4th Official: Marcos de Oliveira
VAR: Alan Kelly
Asst VAR: Craig Lowry.
THE REF - Ismael Elfath - MLS games 161.
Fouls called/Game - 25.6
Yellows/Game - 3.3
Reds (career) - 45
PK’s awarded - 51
CFM record in MLS Regular season games handled by Ismael Elfath -
MP 13 W 6 L 5 D 2 Scored 20 Conceded 13 Points 20
Saturday will be the first time Mr Elfath has taken charge of a Canadian Classique derby.
Check out the latest, The Ball Is Round Podcast (Episode 25). Recorded Wednesday evening (14 April), the TBIR team discusses the CFM v TFC clash (with special guest Michael Singh of Waking The Red website, Montreal football issues of the week, their top three picks for per Conference, Concacaf Champions League & Canada’s WNT in the UK... Plus all the usual favourite features... including, Eve’s Time Machine... Don’t miss it!
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