401 Derby Memories: Underdog Montreal Impact inspire "wall of middle fingers" vs. Toronto FC

Montreal Impact fans at Stade Saputo

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USA Today Sports

MONTREAL – It’s the 26th minute, and a player lines up in front of the BMO Field south stand to take a corner kick. He's not wearing the TFC red, so he's pelted with streamers and whatnot – liquids may even be flying.

This is 2008. July 22, 2008, to be precise. Nothing new here.

The ball curls into the penalty box, and it's redirected in. The game is tied. An hour remains. No big deal for TFC, right?

Wrong.

The player covered in streamers is Joey Gjertsen, clad in a white away strip. The Montreal Impact's. At 1-1, TFC's archrivals – an NASL club at the time – are champions of Canada.

“I don’t know how many goals have come off of corner kicks underneath the streamers, but that was definitely fun,” Gjertsen told MLSsoccer.com by phone earlier this week. “Roberto Brown headed it home, and I remember… [chuckles].

"I remember looking up, once the streamers stopped and I was not covered – I pulled myself out from underneath them, and I just looked up into a wall of middle fingers. It was really funny.”

With a poor MLS record and the CONCACAF Champions League about to kick off, Montreal fans cherish those Canadian Championship memories. Their team has won the competition twice in a row, both times knocking out TFC, who just happen to be in town on Saturday (5 pm ET, TSN/RDS in Canada, MLS LIVE) with an eye toward piling on even more suffering in Quebec this season.

Montreal and Toronto shared the honors in MLS play (2-2-2 over the last two years), but before MLS only Canadian Championship meetings existed and almost every game felt crucial. In 2008, it came down to the last game of what was then a round-robin tournament. The tension was unbearable.

“A tie has never felt more like a win than that day, because we were definitely the underdog and all we needed to do was tie to advance,” Gjertsen said.

A similar sentiment had grown in Toronto: all they needed to do was win to advance. All they needed.

“There was a sense that TFC's name-brand recognition would overpower the scrappy second-division side, that a moment of quality, rare though they were in those days, would see them through against a rag-tag opponent,” said James Grossi, who currently contributes to Canadian Soccer News and Waking the Red and was in attendance that night. “But Montreal showed a lot of grit in that competition, refusing to bow down. They had a real spirit and tenacity that had to be admired, if not enjoyed.”

Somehow, someway, Montreal held on to the score draw despite the almost uninterrupted waves of Toronto attacks: a shot on the post, another cleared off the line and five seemingly never-ending minutes of stoppage time.

“We got to celebrate a little bit on their field,” Gjertsen recalled. “It was pretty fun.”

Unless you were a Torontonian, that is.

“Most fans quickly vacated the premises, going about their business," Grossi said. "But some, those who understood the gravitas of the occasion, really wanted to endure the moment, remember it, vowing it should never happen again."

Gjertsen stayed in Canada for four years, with two-and-a-half spent in Montreal. He got to grasp what this rivalry – which he thinks has become “one of the best in MLS” – meant to the traveling supporters he raised the Voyageurs Cup toward that day in 2008.

“It’s truly cities that – I don’t know if you want to say ‘hate’ each other, but there’s more there,” Gjertsen said. “It’s provinces, it’s a big national fight you guys got up there.”

Added Grossi: “Regardless of who won, the tournament earned an important place in the hearts of club supporters in this country. One can tell the difference between a fan and a supporter by how important this tournament is to them.”

Gjertsen played regularly during Montreal’s magical run to the CCL quarterfinals and remained a fixture in the side until he signed with the San Jose Earthquakes in early 2010. But he needed two right knee surgeries after the 2011 season and ended up missing the entire 2012 season, after which the Quakes declined an option on him.

A native of Washington state, Gjertsen has been back home since last fall. He’s been healthy for six months, which got him an invitation from Seattle Sounders U-23 head coach Darren Sawatzky to come and play a couple of games with the team despite his 32 years of age.

Gjertsen’s had no contacts with the main Sounders team, but there was an offer from Sweden which he turned down – he doesn’t know whether he could still play at that level.

But he does know that he’ll be watching this Saturday when the two rivals collide again with MLS fortunes and bragging rights on the line.

“Those games were so fun,” Gjertsen said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

The fact that being given the finger becomes a fond memory just about does it.