Toronto FC, Montreal Impact renew latest installment of epic MLS rivalry
I'll admit it: I had forgotten all about the penalty box screw-up.
Last year's MLS Eastern Conference final series between Toronto and Montreal got off to an inauspicious start, when the grounds crew at Olympic Stadium accidentally painted the boxes four feet too narrow. Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush, out for warm-ups and doing his standard shuffles from one edge of the area to the other, realized something was off immediately.
"It didn't feel right," Bush said. "It felt like I didn't have enough time to do them.
More than 60,000 fans packed inside the Big O were made to wait nearly half an hour as the crew first painted over the incorrect lines with green and then laid down the correct ones in white.
It is a measure of just how thrilling the subsequent 210 minutes of action were that the gaffe was so thoroughly overshadowed.
So much else about that series is easy to vividly recall: the raucous atmospheres, the plot twists, the goals -- so many goals. Even at a remove, it is not an overstatement to call the 2016 Eastern Conference final both the most entertaining playoff series in league history and one of its most consequential.
Ahead of another edition of Highway 401 Derby on Sunday at the Stade Saputo (4:30 p.m. EST on ESPN/WatchESPN), it's worth running back the highlights with input from both sides -- because in many ways, its aftereffects have lingered into 2017 for both TFC and the Impact.
Toronto FC has turned itself into a juggernaut. The team is, without question, the best in MLS at the moment, on pace to make a serious run at the league's all-time highest points total.
Less than a year ago, though, there was self-consciousness about a squad participating in only its second MLS Cup playoffs. The matchup with the Impact summoned up bad memories: The previous postseason, Montreal walloped its rivals 3-0 in the knockout round.
"When you look at the way we lost there in the playoffs, it meant that there was an offseason of big questions and uncertainty around here," TFC midfielder Michael Bradley told ESPN FC in a phone interview earlier this week.
"Even though we felt like we had a good team, even though we felt like we had made real improvements, there was still a shadow there.
"Until we proved that we could again be a good team, that we could get in and win in the playoffs ... there was always going to be questions."
Grounds crew aside, Montreal started the conference finals series with aplomb. Dominic Oduro opened the scoring in the 10th minute, and the Big O was still rocking when Matteo Mancosu doubled the lead two minutes later.
"I won't lie, there was a point in that game where you're thinking to yourself: 'Holy s---, this can't be happening again,'" Bradley said.
"It was a point that lasted half of a second, but there was a point where you're thinking to yourself that it was like deja vu."
The first indication that this edition would be different came at halftime, where few wearing red panicked. In a series utilizing the away-goals tiebreaker, a single strike could drastically alter the situation. Just get one, Toronto's veterans soothed their younger counterparts, and everything can still change.
In the home locker room, Impact coach Mauro Biello had a similar message and preached caution. Don't get ahead of yourselves, he'd drilled into his side in the days leading up to the game. Win each half.
"I remember that being the message, but we know in this game that things can turn very quickly," Biello said.
Montreal actually took a 3-0 lead eight minutes into the second half, and for a few moments, that seemed to be that.
"I remember thinking when we got the third goal that this was incredible," Bush said. "We're going to go to MLS Cup, and we're not even done with the first game."
Such optimism proved premature. Jozy Altidore supplied Toronto's breakthrough with 22 minutes to go, and Bradley added a controversial second shortly afterward. Montreal wanted a foul on Altidore for ripping down Victor Cabrera in the lead-up to the goal, but the whistle never came.
"If we had [video-assisted review], maybe we would have been in the final," Biello said wryly.
As it was, a once-commanding Montreal lead shifted back in Toronto's favor. The momentum shifts had just begun. The Impact again regained the upper hand 24 minutes into the second leg, when Oduro once again wriggled free to finish inside the far post.
Even remembering the crowds at both games as being notably loud and having been on hand at the MLS Cup final at BMO Field, the atmospheres in both Montreal and Toronto inspire goosebumps all of these months later.
"When people say it was up there with any in MLS, I don't think that's doing it justice, honestly," Bradley said. "I'd put it up there with any of them -- any of them, anywhere in the world, regardless of whether it was MLS or not.
"It was like everybody who came into that stadium was determined to play a part in a night that people would be talking about for a long time."
Toronto's home crowd lifted its squad at a crucial moment, when the series could have easily definitively broken the other way.
"The thing I'll never forget about that night was that, I've played in so many places, in so many different stadiums, and across the board, the reaction would be for the place to go quiet," Bradley said.
"For a goal like [Oduro's] to suck the life out of it. Instead, every fan looked around and said that we're just going to get louder.
"I can remember the time just after they scored, thinking to myself, 'I've never seen anything like this.' When we got it to 1-1, it felt like there was no way we were going to lose."
Not that advancement to the club's first MLS Cup final came that simply. Though Armando Cooper and Altidore both scored late in the first half to put TFC ahead on aggregate, Ignacio Piatti answered in the 53rd minute to again shift the series Montreal's way.
"The momentum was just swinging back and forth, in that game but really all series," Biello said. "The emotions were so powerful, that's what still stands out to me.
"The roller coaster of emotions of the series is something that I'm going to remember for a long time."
There was a cosmic justice to the series going to extra time, a fate that was sealed by Nick Hagglund's header for Toronto in the very same minute that Altidore had scored in Montreal. One hundred eighty minutes solved nothing -- tied at 5-5, with two away goals apiece, an extra half-hour was necessary.
"I thought we were in pretty good shape," Bush said, especially with TFC star Sebastian Giovinco having been substituted out due to injury.
"I think whoever got the first goal in extra time was probably going to win."
The decisive goal didn't take long -- though it went the opposite way that Bush and the Impact would've hoped. Benoit Cheyrou hit first, in the 98th minute, and Tosaint Ricketts slipped in the dagger less than two minutes later.
The disappointment of coming so close only to fall short seeped into Montreal's preparations for this campaign, Biello admits. Conference runners-up perhaps have it worst of all: A playoff run long enough to condense the offseason into barely a month and a half without any of the glory that even the losing finalist gets to experience.
The Impact haven't often looked like their former selves this season, though an ongoing four-game winning streak hints that the team might finally be shaking off the hangover. Even factoring in that recent surge, Montreal's sixth-place standing is tenuous.
Toronto would suffer through its own crushing setback a week and a half later, of course, losing the league championship to Seattle on penalties despite not allowing a single opposing shot on goal over 120 minutes of action. TFC, though, has been able to repurpose its grief into something more positive.
"Depending on the outcome of certain big games, depending how the game goes, who you lose to and who you beat, it can be much more than just a win or a loss," Bradley said.
"We've got a real team in every sense of the word. We've got a team full of fighters and competitors and winners.
"What we've taken from all of this is that we're going to be a team that's going to go for it, and we're going to go for it in a fearless, aggressive way. If we go down, we're going to go down swinging."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.