From a Sounders perspective, the stakes of the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday at BMO Field are straightforward enough.
If Toronto wins, as the highest remaining seed, it will host the MLS Cup final on Dec. 10. Should Montreal pull off the upset, however, the league title game will be played at CenturyLink Field at the home of the Western Conference champions.
Determining which Canadian club is the likelier to advance is less cut and dry.
Montreal carries over a slim 3-2 advantage from Leg 1. The Impact led 3-0 at one point, only to allow TFC to climb back into the series with a pair of valuable, late away goals. Montreal only needs a draw to advance, but thanks to the away-goals tiebreaker, the hosts will like their chances of going through with a win.
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The case for Toronto: TFC has had talent and ambition going all the way back to its inaugural MLS season in 2007. What Toronto has typically lacked is the fortitude to overcome the bouts of adversity that so characterize the long league season.
As evidenced by that second-half rally at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, this TFC has a sturdier backbone.
“It’s a different team,” Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley said earlier this week. “There are new players. The players that were here have a year more of experience, a year more of playing together every day. There’s nobody around here who’s thinking in any about last year. From day one in preseason, the focus was that we had a foundation for a really good team.”
Bradley is a central pillar of that foundation, as is fellow U.S. national team regular Jozy Altidore. Toronto’s defense was stingiest in the East during the regular season. Sebastian Giovinco remains a one-man wrecking crew capable of tearing up any back line in the league. They’ll be playing in front of a rabid home crowd.
On paper, this is TFC’s MLS Cup berth to lose.
The case for Montreal (and Seattle): Yet on paper, Toronto was a likely playoff team for plenty of years before it finally broke through with its first postseason berth in 2015. Montreal might not have as many high-profile stars in its starting 11, but the Impact boasts plenty of intangibles capable of tilting this series in its direction.
The Didier Drogba drama could have easily cratered their season. With Montreal slumping down the stretch, coach Mauro Biello decided to bench the longtime Chelsea and Ivory Coast star for the younger, fresher legs of Matteo Mancosu. Drogba, balking at the idea of coming off the bench, refused to even show up at the team’s rivalry match against this same Toronto squad back in October.
Instead, Biello has been vindicated on multiple levels. Drogba, currently dealing with Jordan-Morris-esque flu-like symptoms, has since agreed to accept a lesser role and could be used as an impact sub on Wednesday night. Mancosu has been on fire — his four playoff goals are tied for most by any player. And Montreal’s team spirit has been galvanized.
Similarly to the way the Sounders were forced to circle the wagons without Clint Dempsey, the Impact seem to be a sturdier, more well-rounded team for having gone through that adversity.
Whether Montreal is an easier on-field matchup for the Sounders is another question — with a dominant midfield and talented wingers, a case can be made that it is not — but it is one Seattle fans would gladly tackle in the coming days while shopping for MLS Cup tickets at CenturyLink.