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SoccerSoccer in Canada on right path

Posted: Monday, April 2, 2012 | 07:26 PM

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Montreal Impact's Justin Mapp, front, celebrates his goal during the first half against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, March 31. (Mel Evans/Associated Press) Montreal Impact's Justin Mapp, front, celebrates his goal during the first half against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, March 31. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

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When the Montreal Impact take on Toronto FC on Saturday at Olympic Stadium, it will signify a major step in the right direction for Canadian soccer, writes CBC Sports soccer contributor Nigel Reed.
It is only a game.

There are no bonus points for the winner and there is no trophy on the line. When it is over players and coaches will shake hands and move on.
 
Before they leave the field and before the fans desert the stadium, all should take a moment to savour the occasion. Regardless of the result, soccer in Canada will have taken another step in the right direction.
 
The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC will become pretty familiar in 2012. Saturday's MLS encounter at the Olympic Stadium will be the first of their three regular season meetings this year. The two will also clash twice more in pursuit of the Canadian Championship.
 
The Cup ties, though exciting, are nothing new. The CSA's popular spring tournament provides the winner with a pathway to international exposure via the CONCACAF Champions League. Both Montreal and Toronto have represented Canada with credit in recent years.
 
This weekend's match is different. For the first time in modern history the two will meet as equals. The playing field has finally been levelled following the Impact's elevation to the top tier of North America's soccer pyramid. Toronto has been allowed to hog the spotlight for long enough.
 
Much too long for many Montrealers whose team traces its roots back almost 20 years. The Impact was up and running long before Major League Soccer came into being. Yet when MLS made the decision to expand north of the border, specifically to Eastern Canada in the mid-2000's, Montreal was ignored.
 
The League, instead, chose to create a new franchise in Toronto. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment already owned a hockey and basketball team and was happy to hand over a $10 million expansion fee to add a soccer team to its portfolio. Canada's first MLS franchise, Toronto FC, became the League's 13th team in 2007.
 
Montreal could, perhaps should, have followed suit sooner. Had team owner Joey Saputo and MLS Commissioner Don Garber been able to agree on the numbers, it is conceivable Montreal could have jumped the queue ahead of Philadelphia, Portland, and Canada's second franchise, Vancouver.

Soccer heritage
 
It's better late than never. Montreal's rich soccer heritage can now add its unique flavour and influence to the League's tapestry. Other teams service their Latino followers for example, but only one conducts its business first in French and then in English.
 
True rivalry cannot be manufactured. In Europe geographical proximity is often the catalyst but the sheer size of the North American landmass and the distances between major areas of urban population means local 'derbies' are virtually non-existent.   
 
They gave it a go. Last weekend, Toronto FC entertained the Columbus Crew in the first of three matches for the 2012 Trillium Cup. A sprinkling of Columbus fans crossed the border to see their team collect maximum points and put one hand on a trophy which, though well intended, is largely irrelevant to supporters of both teams.
 
A real rivalry stems from history and tradition. Differing lifestyles, languages, customs and cultures are all important ingredients. English and French Canada pre-dates Confederation itself so the pot has had plenty of time to bubble and boil over the last century and a half.
 
Sporting rivalry is merely an extension of that identity. It is about what's in the blood. It's about who you are and where you're from. But mostly it is about making fun of the other team - aka bragging rights.      
 
That, in a nutshell, is why the first ever MLS meeting between Montreal and Toronto is so significant. Toronto fans can no longer sneer at a group of second tier semi-pros. Impact supporters have been forced to watch from the MLS sidelines for years and hide their frustration as two other Canadian clubs have led the way.
 
Now, once and for all, it can be sorted out on the field. As an expansion team Montreal will likely have to endure the same painful baptism as most of its predecessors. A win or two, however, over the Reds of Toronto will make the bumps along the road a good deal less sore.
 
What of the Canadians Champions? TFC, and its long suffering fans, are prepared to trade pride for points. Another wretched start to the League campaign, combined with some unfortunate injuries and an overworked squad trying to focus on two things at once, makes a win in Montreal all the more important.
 
Motivation will not be an issue. A franchise first home victory over Toronto is all the incentive Montreal needs. If they are not already, alarm bells will be ringing should TFC return from Quebec with an 0-4 record. So, who wants it more?

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