It finally happened: Toronto FC is in the postseason after eight seasons of coming up short.
Its reward is an Eastern Conference knockout-round match against the club it just lost to while trying to contain a player who might deserve MVP consideration despite playing just 11 games, though Toronto counters with the award’s likely winner.
The Montreal Impact host Toronto on Thursday night with late-season standout Didier Drogba and Golden Boot winner Sebastian Giovinco highlighting the domestic rivalry.
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While the Impact were able to remain somewhat positive through a disastrous 2014 MLS season with a CONCACAF Champions League run, Toronto remained the only active MLS club to never play postseason soccer. Now both are a step closer to their first non-Canadian trophies.
"It’s a special moment for us," Impact coach Mauro Biello told the club’s official website. "We’ve had some big moments this year with Champions League, but we play in this league to win and now that we are in the playoffs, we have a big game against Toronto."
The Impact moved past Toronto with Sunday’s 2-1 home win, earning the third seed and home-field advantage as Drogba scored twice in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The MLS Player of the Month had five goals in five October matches after also winning the September honor with seven markers in five games.
"We were a little too individualistic in the first half, but when we simplified things in the second, we were successful," Drogba said. "We were much more dangerous in the second half. Playing Toronto again is going to be difficult. They are a great team with good players, but we will do our best to win this important game for the fans and the city of Montreal."
The long-time Chelsea forward debuted on Aug. 22, and Montreal went 7-2-2 with him in the lineup from that point on, transforming from a playoff hopeful a season after winning six games to one of the league’s hottest team. Drogba has 11 goals in nine starts and two substitute appearances to guide the Impact to their second playoff appearance in their four seasons of existence.
Sixth-seeded Toronto, meanwhile, doesn’t have a shutout in its last 10 matches.
"It’s quite a challenge. I’ve never faced anyone like that," Toronto defender Josh Williams told the club’s official website. "He’s a beast of a player. At the end of the day we can’t give him too much respect. He’s a good player and we know that, but we need to focus on what we need to do."
Toronto clinched its first playoff spot in nine MLS seasons with a 2-1 home win over Supporters’ Shield winner New York on Oct. 14 but proceeded to limp into the postseason with consecutive losses.
Jozy Altidore scored against Montreal on an assist from 22-goal scorer Giovinco, who edged out Columbus’ Kei Kamara for the Golden Boot on an assists tiebreaker as his 16 made him the first player in league history with at least 20 goals and 10 assists.
Altidore finished with 13 goals in 25 matches, so 35 of Toronto’s 58 league goals came from its potent striking duo.
In league play, Toronto holds a 5-3-3 advantage and won the first two games of the season, though the first came before Drogba’s arrival and the second came with him out of the lineup. Altidore scored in all three meetings, while Giovinco and central midfielder Michael Bradley scored in the wins.
But Drogba or not, to Bradley, even Sunday’s match was a "dry run" for Thursday.
"We expect everything to get cranked up a few notches," Bradley said. "But we’re excited. It’s a big game. These are the games that, when you start in January, you talk about playing in."