When it comes to the playoffs, most clubs tend to disregard recent regular-season results against a particular opponent regardless of the outcome. The thought is that there is not much to take away from those games because the postseason is a different animal.
Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact are in a unique situation, however.
A second installment of the 401 Derby will be played in a span of five days, as TFC and the Impact meet again at Stade Saputo on Thursday night (7 p.m., UniMas). The Canadian clubs went up against one another in a consequential season finale on Sunday, but things figure to only get more intense when they fight for their MLS Cup Playoff lives in the first round of the Eastern Conference.
The Impact prevailed, 2-1, in the most recent meeting, using a pair of Didier Drogba goals in quick succession during the second half to overturn the result. That victory moved the Impact into third place in the East, won them home-field advantage in this round of the postseason and, maybe most importantly, gave them a blueprint for how to beat Toronto FC again on Thursday when the stakes are much higher.
“I think you can take a lot, because even though it wasn’t a playoff game, it was a game that meant you get to host a playoff game,” Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush told SBI. “I saw after the game some of the comments from Toronto players saying that the game didn’t matter and the real game is Thursday. Well, that makes sense because it is a playoff game, but I think they’re kind of contradicting themselves because that game did mean a lot to them. To host a game at home for them would have meant a lot.
“We can take the successes we had against them more so in the second half of the game than the first half – because the first half I thought we played poor – but some of the things we were able to do and the way we approached the second half is something we’ll have to take into the next game.”
While it surely will take a complete team performance to advance to the next round of the postseason, a lot of the focus from the outside and even on the inside will be on marking the foreign star players that each club possesses. Drogba has been terrorizing defenses for much of the past two months, scoring 11 times in as many matches since arriving in MLS, while Toronto FC star Sebastian Giovinco has put up a record-breaking campaign that has all but won him the MLS MVP award.
Of the two, it was Drogba that shone brightest on Sunday. The 37-year-old Ivorian striker scored on a pair of impressive back-heel goals in a matter of a minute early in the second half to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead that was not relinquished. Toronto FC had done a good job of negating Drogba prior to halftime, but it knows that it needs to be even more aware of where he is and maybe more physical with him over the course of 90 minutes to limit his impact.
Easier said than done, of course, against someone so strong and skilled, but something that has to be achieved nonetheless in order to avoid a short-lived first playoff campaign.
“I thought our back line and the group as a whole did a good job in the first half, so there’s things that we need to take away from that,” Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney told SBI. “In dealing with him making sure we have presence on him, and you can’t just have presence on him and just run next to him. You have to make him deal with you a little bit, you have to make sure there’s some form of contact. It doesn’t mean fouling him all over the place, or following him at all necessarily.
“It means you have to be able to deal with him. The two goals he scored against us he made free runs and he just comes off the back shoulder of our centerbacks and then just gets to the space totally unimpeded and not really having to deal with them. That’s just too easy.”
Conversely, the Impact’s defense will also have their hands full. Not only do Mauro Biello’s men need to find a way to hold U.S. Men’s National Team duo Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in check, but they also need to thwart Giovinco.
The diminutive Italian has been on a tear throughout his inaugural MLS campaign in 2015, finishing with league-highs in both goals (22) and assists (16). Giovinco had the helper on Altidore’s opening goal on Sunday, but the Impact believe that the key to doing an even better job on the crafty playmaker is by pressuring him more than they did on the weekend.
“I think the problem became we put too many guys around him and we respected him a little bit too much,” said Bush. “Their goal from last game (came) with three guys marking him on the right wing. None of them really stepped to him because they didn’t want to get beaten, they didn’t want to get nutmegged or embarrassed or whatever, which, fair enough, because he’s done that to quite a few guys this year.
“But we need someone to step into him, and if not, we can’t get caught ball-watching, because he was able to lift his head up and find Altidore in the box for an easy header. We need to be aware obviously of where Giovinco is and do well putting numbers around him, but we can’t get so caught up with what he’s doing and lose other guys around him.”
Where Toronto FC is at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the Impact is that it lacks playoff experience. This is TFC’s first trip to an MLS postseason, and a chunk of its players have never been through this situation before.
Sure, the likes of Giovinco and Bradley can lean on their European club and international experiences, but that might not fully translate over once the ball gets rolling on Thursday. In fact, Vanney does not believe there is any “major substitute” for postseason games.
“I still think there is something that you feel that you have to get used to, that you have to quickly adapt to once you get a sense of what MLS Playoffs are like,” said Vanney. “It doesn’t mean that the game is going to be that much prettier of a game. In some ways, it’s the opposite. The games aren’t maybe as pretty and technical and clean as they are in the regular season some times. They’re just feistier and faster and guys are pressing a little bit harder and spaces are closing and time is less on the ball.
“You have to get a feel for that, and I don’t know that there’s any specific experience other than going through it here in MLS to really know what that is.”
Regardless, both clubs should fully know what to expect when it comes to one another. Not only are the rivals more than familiar with one another after seeing each other throughout the year in various competitions, but they literally just played one another over the weekend in what was essentially a dress rehearsal for what’s to come.
“We obviously just saw each other a few days ago,” said Vanney. “I don’t think there’s any grand secrets that each other are going to pull out of our hat that we haven’t seen in the many times we’ve played each other. We know who their team is, they know who our team is.”