It's understandable why, ahead of Saturday's 401 Derby, that so much of the media attention is focusing on the rivalry that exists between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
The sporting phenomenon that has become soccer supporter culture in Canada -- and especially away supporter culture - is nothing short of absurd. Ten years ago, the idea that 5,000 soccer fans would travel anywhere, for anything in Canada, would have been delusional. And yet, here we are this week with Toronto FC confirming they're expecting just such a following in la belle province.
The reason for the hype and excitement extends deeper than just a few soccer fans attending a game up the road. The societal divisions too -- language, religion and political -- offer up an interesting contrast and backdrop to this cross-provincial rivalry. The identities of Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact aren't found in direct links to the colonial days' past but the Upper Canada vs. Lower Canada emotions and tensions still persist among the respective supporter groups.
Impact president Joey Saputo spelled it out this week when he told a Montreal radio station why his club was different.
"Our fans did not accept that our team is composed of so many Americans. I want our fans to feel a sense of belonging and Montreal multiculturalism means that we accept a player more European."
That quote alone can give testament to why their former head coach Jesse Marsch, an American, was fired in the off season. But it also gives great insight into what may be the unspoken storyline of this weekend -- two clubs who are currently taking completely different approaches to building their team and yet are historically linked by them. Building blocks
On one hand, in Montreal, you have a club that is built to win now. The spine of this team is composed of seven players over the age of 30-years-old. Striker Marco Di Vaio and defender Alessandro Nesta will be 37-years-old by seasons end. Add in the wear and tear of an MLS schedule (and the travel that comes with it) and they'll be lucky to escape the year without resorting to using walkers. That amounts to a lot of money being tied up in a quickly aging core.
You also have a club that is being chosen to reflect the ethnic sensitivities of the community. Andrea Pisanu, the Italian midfielder who came over in the offseason, joins fellow countrymen Nesta and Di Vaio and finds himself playing in front of former Seria A standout Matteo Ferrari. The rest of the squad is sprinkled with players who hail from France, Switzerland or who got their start locally in Quebec.
On the other hand, you have Toronto FC, who are going through what amounts to a seventh re-building season. They're bringing in players like John Bostock, who, at 21-years-old is trying to re-capture a stunted career by essentially taking on an extended trial. If he performs, he could see significant money. If he doesn't, well, then they'll show him the door without a penny over committed. Argentine forward Maximiliano Urruti, 22-years-old, falls into the same category. The prolific talent, who has often been courted by clubs in Europe, has been in talks to become a designated player in Toronto. Again, under the proviso, that if he works as an MLS player, he will get his Jerry McGuire moment. It's as forward thinking as the club has ever been, with the rest of the squad - from American to Zambian - as far removed from a cultural proto-type as any.
And while the 2013 version of Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact couldn't be any different, they do have one historical similarity that binds them.
In 2008, Toronto FC signed a wealth of aging players in an attempt to make the playoffs in their second season in the league. The lineup was filled with guys at the end of the line like Danny Dichio, Amado Guevara, Laurent Robert and Jeff Cunningham. They would continue that trend in 2009 with players like Julian De Guzman and Ali Gerba. As has been well documented, the push for the playoffs never materialized and the club was hampered for years by moves they'd made to get those players -- often being constricted by a number of contracts from that period. You could even make the case that the shortsighted signings from those years sent Toronto into the quick fix spiral they've been in ever since.
That's not to say the same will happen in Montreal. They've managed to do some creative accounting to keep their stars from taking up too much room on the books. But it's clear, much like in the early days of Toronto FC, they are putting all their eggs, or rather Italians, in one basket.
If it doesn't pay off with playoff pay dirt for Montreal this year, much like the cultural history that that gets written into the conversation every time these two clubs meet, so too could a club history of similar mistakes.
Back to accessibility links