Nine years of waiting for a maiden Major League Soccer playoff berth came to a quick and crushing end for fans of Toronto FC last season as the team went out quickly in losing 3-0 in the knockout round to the Montreal Impact, their most heated rivals.
The first rematch of the two sides in the "401 Derby" takes place this weekend in one of two all-Canadian matchups in MLS and the NASL.
“We’re frustrated, upset, and disappointed the way it ended but we’re also focused on this season and establishing things that we want to do this season,” Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney said after training on Thursday. “Making sure that come post-season we put ourselves in a better position than we were last season. It’s in our mind and it’s a little motivation as we go. It’s a rivalry and it’s a team that ended our season last year.”
Montreal is flying high on top of the Eastern Conference while Toronto has eight points in six games, which already equals the target the club set for their eight-game road trip to start the season. It sets up the kind of fevered soccer atmosphere that was once the stuff of dreams of Canadian soccer fans.
Adding to the marquee is a possible first start of the season for superstar Didier Drogba, who scored his first goal of the season in last week’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire.
Montreal will have the added expectation of continuing their hot start against their most heated foe while Toronto would love nothing more than to hold early bragging rights over a Montreal team they’ll see plenty of times this season.
“It’s just another game and another three game, another three points and I want to stay atop the table,” Montreal midfielder Kyle Bekker told Yahoo Canada Sports.
“Obviously it gets the fans riled up, which is nice. There will be a good atmosphere, a good buzz around the stadium so it’s fun to play in. I’ve been on the right side of a couple and it’s good.”
The other all-Canadian matchup this weekend sees FC Edmonton welcoming the Ottawa Fury FC in their first meeting of the season on Sunday.
Each of the teams has picked up just one point in their first three games in the NASL Spring Season. Ottawa has scored just one goal while Edmonton is still looking for its first goal of the season.
There will be plenty of Canadian international experience on the field. Edmonton added Nik Ledgerwood (47 appearances for Canada) in the offseason as the Alberta native returned to his home province. Ottawa added defender Marcel de Jong (44 appearances) to join up with Julian de Guzman as both teams continue to feature more Canadian talent than their MLS brethren.
Bekker trying to make the most of starting opportunity
Midfielder Kyle Bekker will be coming up against his former team when the Montreal Impact takes on Toronto FC on Saturday afternoon at Saputo Stadium but more than that, he’ll be looking to add his fourth straight start in Montreal’s midfield.
Bekker started his pro career in Toronto after being drafted third overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. He never managed to make himself a regular there and was sent to FC Dallas at the start of last season and was then traded to Montreal in July of last season.
Since then he’s again largely been a squad player but has worked his way on to the field under Mauro Biello, the league’s only Canadian manager.
Bekker scored his second MLS goal in Montreal’s 2-0 win over the Columbus Crew two weeks ago, celebrating in memorable fashion with a kick that shattered the corner flag.
“It’s just a matter of being ready and hoping the time was going to come,” Bekker told Yahoo Canada Sports in a phone interview. He also admitted he didn’t expect the corner flag to shatter as it did when he celebrated.
“When it came it was just a matter of being ready and confident in what I can do. I think that happened with the game in Seattle and they trusted me with the next game and it was nice to get a goal against Columbus.”
With Marco Donadel an option to play for Saturday, it will be interesting to see whether Bekker keeps his playing time. In those three starts, Montreal has two wins and a loss with Bekker the only Canadian player in the starting lineup.
Bekker said he's looking forward to the prospect of lining up against Toronto’s experienced midfield that includes Michael Bradley and Canadians Will Johnson and Jonathan Osorio.
“Playing with both Mike (Bradley) and Will (Johnson) is going to be a challenge for whoever on our team who’s going to be in the middle,” said Bekker. “It’s going to be a hard working game and nobody’s going to want to give up anything through the middle of the field so it’s going to be a good battle for whoever is playing.”