Montreal have their hands full with Giovinco and rampant Toronto FC
How we got here
Toronto FC throttled New York City FC during two legs thanks to a prolific offense and superior tactical plan. Sebastian Giovinco starred and TFC got big performances from Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Osorio. The Reds took advantage of a desperate and undisciplined NYCFC team in the second leg of the series to put Patrick Vieira's team to the sword with a 5-0 victory. Giovinco scored a hat trick in the match, only adding to his reputation as the most dangerous player in MLS.
TFC's Canadian rival Montreal used a devastating counterattack to take down the Red Bulls, thanks in large part to Matteo Mancosu and Ignacio Piatti. Mancosu put the Impact on good footing with a thunderous goal in the first leg in Montreal and the Impact's defense and goalkeeper Evan Bush made the single goal stand up. In the second leg in New York, Sacha Kljestan's missed penalty forced the Red Bulls to chase the game from the run of play, giving Montreal openings to score twice and sew up advancement.
When Toronto FC have the ball
It's certainly reductive to say that TFC's foremost tactical underpinning is "get Sebastian Giovinco the ball," but that doesn't mean it's not accurate. The Italian dynamo is so dangerous with the ball at his feet that he invariably draws multiple defenders. If Giovinco is unable to beat the defenders who close in on him (and he often does), it still leaves gaps for TFC to exploit. The Reds have also used Altidore to good effect, leaning on his skill as a target man and passer to bring Giovinco, Osorio and others into the attack.
When Montreal Impact have the ball
Simply put, the Impact want to run. Mauro Biello's team is at its best when flying at the opposing goal on the counterattack. While Piatti is the choice man to orchestrate that counterattack, the Impact have several players who can use speed to threaten an opponent. Piatti himself is adept at arriving in the box at just the right time to finish the move. The key for Montreal against Toronto FC is to force turnovers in the midfield using a three-man defensive midfield setup, then push the ball to Piatti, Dominic Oduro and Mancosu
Player in the spotlight: Sebastian Giovinco
With apologies to Altidore and Michael Bradley, there is no other choice for Toronto than the reigning MLS MVP. Giovinco's range of weaponry makes him the must-stop man for Montreal. The Italian forward can not only create goals out of thin air from a wide range of spots on the field, he's developed a relationship with Altidore that means his influence is even further amplified. The Impact can't give up free kicks within range of their goal, and they certainly can't let Giovinco slip behind their backline to collect long balls from Bradley out of the midfield.
Player in the spotlight: Ignacio Piatti
Montreal's Argentine playmaker is somehow underrated, despite being the driving force of the Impact attack and the major reason the team has gotten this far. A lot of attention is given to Piatti's role in the Impact's counterattack-heavy setup, but he's more than capable of playing the virtuoso closer to goal.
Always a goal threat, Piatti possesses a deft touch and brilliant passing ability that will keep TFC on their toes every time he gets on the ball. On a team with Didier Drogba, it's Piatti that has lifted himself to the status of most valuable player. Piatti scored three times against TFC this year, so the Reds know all about the danger he poses.
What will decide both legs?
Montreal's defensive strength in the face of the Toronto attack will be the deciding factor in each of the two games. If the Impact can slow TFC in their defensive third and create turnovers, they'll not only keep the Reds off the board, they'll give themselves a chance to breakout and hit Toronto on the counter.
In the first leg at home in Montreal, the Impact will have the advantage of the crowd and an uncomfortable TFC playing on turf. They have to make that count. The second leg in Toronto will turn entirely on the first leg scoreline -- a Montreal win in leg one sets them up perfectly to bunker down and frustrate TFC in the second leg. The Impact have won just once in Toronto in their MLS history, but a win there might not even be necessary for Montreal to advance.
Who will win the series?
Toronto is the better team, and is a slight favorite (56.4 percent) to advance according to the Soccer Power Index. TFC's vast improvement defensively during last year means Greg Vanney can trust his team to hunt for goals and not be overly exposed at the back. Altidore's form, combined with the ever-present irresistibility of Giovinco, gives Toronto two dominant weapons at the front of the formation. As good as Montreal is at sitting back and absorbing pressure in their own half, the smart money is on two of the league's best goal scorers finding room to create and score goals. Toronto is the pick.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.