A year ago, when the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC met for the first time in Major League Soccer at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, both teams had very different objectives for their seasons.
The Impact were an expansion side intent on simply trying to be competitive and on giving a respectable account of themselves in their first year; on the other hand, TFC, in what was an initially feeble Eastern Conference, was determined to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons in MLS.
On Saturday afternoon at the Olympic Stadium, the Impact will take on TFC once again, but with the aspirations of both teams having almost completely reversed from a year ago.
In 2013, it’s the Impact who are looking to make the playoffs - and even perhaps having a run at the MLS Cup - while TFC, with some of the first picks in the MLS SuperDraft, frantic last-minute transfers in the offseason, as well as a defense-first mentality and an emphasis on being hard to beat, almost look like an expansion team starting from scratch.
Both teams have kicked off their seasons on the right footing, though.
The Impact, who managed only two wins away from home last year, were able to win its first two games of the season on the road in Seattle and Portland, showcasing sturdy defensive cohesion, clinical finishing and an unyielding team spirit under new head coach Marco Schällibaum.
TFC had the worst defensive record in MLS during the 2012 season, but has looked as compact as it's ever been under rookie head coach and former Queens Park Rangers defender Ryan Nelson so far this year. Toronto fared commendably in a 1-0 loss on the road to the red hot Vancouver Whitecaps in the first outing of the campaign two weeks ago, succumbing only to a brilliant goal in the second half from Gershon Koffie, and was, for the most part, excellent in a 2-1 win against MLS Cup hopeful Sporting Kansas City last week at Rogers Centre.
In their opening two games, both teams have generally played in a more conservative fashion and it will be interesting to see whether they will change their approach when the sides meet on Saturday. There is a chance that they cancel each other out, but the consensus in the Montreal camp this week was that with the Impact now playing at home in front of what is expected to be 40,000 in attendance at the Olympic Stadium, they will want to be much more proactive and take the game to their visiting rival.
There will likely be more of the same defensive approach from TFC, and the Impact have certainly been preparing for that possibility this week with time spent training different attacking combination plays and ideas for what could be a very crowded final third. If Schällibaum opts for the same system as the first two outings, effective off-the-ball movement from Davy Arnaud and Felipe behind lone striker Marco Di Vaio will be fundamental.
TFC, for its part, has shown that it, too, possesses capable offensive talent in recently acquired players like John Bostock and Robert Earnshaw. Unlocking the Impact back line, one that might very well be the best there is in MLS with the likes of Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari leading it, will be a tall order.
Things can change over the course of the season, but for now, with a strong group of players that is really beginning to click, the Impact will be the favorites to take all three points against TFC on Saturday.
Despite very different circumstances and aspirations, one thing both teams do have in common is the feeling of having found a stability that they didn’t have previously. There’s always plenty at stake in a derby encounter, but perhaps Saturday’s biggest incentive will be the chance to give the other a more grimly impression of themselves.
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