By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – Toronto and Montreal, longtime foes on the ice, are fueling a rivalry on the soccer pitch as they prepare to battle for a berth in Major League Soccer’s championship match.
Toronto FC visit Montreal Impact for the opener of their two-leg Eastern Conference finals on Nov 24 against the Impact at 60,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
It marks the first appearance by either club in a conference championship that will determine which Canadian side advances to the Dec. 10 MLS Cup versus either Colorado or Seattle.
“Obviously, a special game,” Montreal coach Mauro Biello told a conference call about playing Toronto. “I think history is being made here in Canada in terms of soccer. It’s a great opportunity for Canadian soccer to grow.
“There is a big buzz in the city about this game.”
The game was shifted from Montreal’s Saputo Stadium home to Olympic Stadium, which has a roof and can seat an additional 40,000 fans.
“This is going to be special,” said Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier. “You always want the stellar performance that can ignite soccer in Canada.
“This is, for Canadian soccer, a big moment. Something kids can look upon as games you want to play.”
The rivals met in last year’s MLS playoffs with Montreal spanking Toronto 3-0 in the knockout phase.
“Last year was a small taste,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said about the sports rivalry between Canada’s two largest cities. “Each time we play these games that are more meaningful, the rivalry grows.”
Vanney said last year’s playoff defeat still stings.
“We have enough guys from last year who remember that day and were embarrassed on that day as was myself,” the coach said.
Toronto’s standout playmaker Sebastian Giovinco of Italy, sidelined at the end of the season due to leg muscle strains, pronounced himself fit and eager for revenge.
“It is just an additional motivation for me and the whole team to do better than last year and erase last year’s memory,” Giovinco said.
Vanney said regardless of the outcome, Canada soccer would be a winner.
“Between our two stadiums there could be 100,000 fans in these two games and that’s pretty amazing,” he said.
“It’s a very attractive matchup for Canadian viewership. It will push a Canadian team to the MLS final. All these moments help build the sport, no question some growth will come out of it.”
(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)