MLS ushers in new era with Canada's fiercest rivalry
The MacDonald-Cartier Freeway, alternatively known as the 401, connects Toronto to the Quebec border on the doorstep of Montreal.
It’s about a five-hour drive from one city to the other, and the proximity of the two has forged a rivalry that is never more evident than when their respective sports teams go head-to-head.
While their rivalry in hockey is perhaps most famous in the hockey arena, Saturday marks the start of another chapter in the never-ending battle between Canada’s two largest cities (noon ET, TSN/RDS in Canada/watch LIVE online).
So, does the “401 derby” have the potential to be the most intense of all the regional battles in the league?
WATCH: Montreal players preview TFC
“I think in Canada, having the biggest rivalry in hockey with Toronto and Montreal, that carries a lot of weight,” goalkeeper Greg Sutton told MLSsoccer.com by phone after his team’s training session on Friday. Sutton played in Montreal before becoming the first goalkeeper in TFC history. He's now back with Montreal in their first MLS campaign.
“Now it transfers over into the soccer arena. It’s going to be something special, I think, for years to come.”
Canadian teams in any sport have a bone to pick with Toronto teams. As Canada’s largest city, Toronto sports teams often get the most media attention, much to the chagrin of other Canadian sports fans.
Given that Montreal is just a few hours away, their resentment is perhaps the strongest. Even without sports, the friction between the two cities would likely still exist due to Toronto’s role as Canada's economic center.
“Most cities in Canada feel Torontonians feel that Toronto is the center of the universe in terms of Canada,” said former Canadian national team captain Jason de Vos, now a commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Certainly, there is a perception that is the mentality that’s there. So there’s a little bit of angst that will spill out in the stands, I’m sure.”
While Toronto FC can boast that they were the first Canadian team in Major League Soccer, Montreal won the inaugural Nutrilite Canadian Championship (now known as the Amway Canadian Championship). In 2008, the then-USL First Division Impact won the Voyageurs Cup at BMO Field against their MLS opponents, humbling Toronto in the process.
Montreal eventually bowed out of the CONCACAF Champions League to Mexican side Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals and, while Toronto’s won every Canadian Championship since, got a taste of what it would be like to rule Canadian club soccer.
“I think it was bigger for Montreal just from moving on in CONCACAF,” said Sutton, who was with TFC at that time. “These are two unique and different cities but one city always thinks they’re better than the other, which is great. I just think it’s more exciting for the fans and the game.”
Members of Toronto’s various supporters’ groups have always made the trip up to Montreal when the two Canadian teams have met in the Canadian Championship. That travelling number is expected to be much larger for their first battle in MLS action.
Groups like the Red Patch Boys and U-Sector in Toronto raised the bar for expansion teams that came later in Philadelpia, Seattle and Portland, but Montreal fans are eager to prove that they’ve been just as supportive of their side, even in the years before making the jump to MLS.
“The Quebec region has always had a very strong group,” Sutton said. “Obviously, when you get a team like Toronto in here, there’s a little extra motivation for those fans to be louder and show that they’re quite a group to handle.”