Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact. Or, some would argue, British vs. Italian?
It's the easy characterization that has been applied by many based on each club's history and ties.
Four of the eight TFC head coaches were exports from the British Isles exports, and their current boss, New Zealander and former English Premier League defender Ryan Nelsen, counts on 10 players that hail from Great Britain or that have experience in the British game.
In Montreal, meanwhile, six current players, arguably the Impact's most influential, are either Italian or have played in Italy. Not to mention club president Joey Saputo is of Italian descent.
Highlights: Montreal vs. Toronto, April 7, 2012
The style of play from both teams thus far in 2013 has, in a way, supported the stereotype. When they attack, there is a quickness to TFC’s transitions, often bypassing the middle of the field. On the other side of the divide, Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari have brought the Italian defending savvy to Montreal, whose deadly counterattacks translated into two huge away wins and led some to call it "catenaccio" at its best.
But is it so simple, really? Both teams agree, for once: No, it’s not.
“There is nothing to that at all,” Ryan Nelsen said of the "British team" tag. “We are a Toronto style team. I don’t get just English players. I would have brought in Hogan [Ephraim], Robbie [Earnshaw] and John [Bostock] even if they had been South American or Alaskan. It doesn’t matter.”
Highlights: Montreal vs. Toronto, June 27, 2012
Added Montreal assistant coach Mauro Biello: “Our style has been our style for years and it’s going to remain that way. The way we work and the way we prepare for games have simply become a little more European. That’s the difference. Our team’s always wanted to be in control and proactive, especially at home. That’s what we’re trying to create.”
Montreal are actually adamant that the style they beat Portland and Seattle with was not authentically theirs. The Impact did, after all, kick off their season with two games on the road where they, logically, sat back. They have not had a chance to dictate the play at home yet.
That suits Toronto perfectly. After scoring an early goal through Earnshaw against Sporting Kansas City last weekend, the Reds managed their game effectively, strong in the knowledge that the pressure was on Graham Zusi & Co. to score.
One wonders how, on the first weekend of the season, Toronto would have reacted in Vancouver had one of the two chances they created in the early minutes against the Whitecaps gone in.
“I think our identity will be a hardworking team that is difficult to play against,” Canadian midfielder Terry Dunfield said. “And when we do get the ball, we are going to be exciting to watch.”
But, warned Montreal, they are not going to hand Toronto acres of space on a silver platter.
“I don’t think that it’s going to be a drastic change for us,” Montreal captain Davy Arnaud told reporters about playing at home for the first time. “We know what makes us good.
"We’ve seen results this preseason and the first two games of the year. Maybe the tempo is going to be a little different. Maybe the areas where you start pressing or how high you’re pressing changes.”
Highlights: Montreal vs. Toronto, Oct. 20, 2012
Arnaud mentioning changes in pressing suggests that Montreal will indeed push higher up at the Olympic Stadium than in Cascadia over the first two weekends, and TFC's Nelsen has probably figured that much already.
The general tactical battle between Nelsen and Impact head coach Marco Schällibaum, both of whom will be experiencing the Montreal/Toronto rivalry for the first time, therefore seems to be quite clear. But when defending your city’s pride is the agenda, anything can happen.
“I base [the team] on the Toronto character and what I need to fit the city,” Nelsen said. “It is a hard-working city with a bit of creativity in it as well. And that is how I like my players.”
“I think that, just like [French defender] Hassoun Camara said how he was a full-fledged Montrealer now, we’re also a group with strong ties with this city,” Schällibaum told MLSsoccer.com. “We want to represent Montreal as an open city, a hospitable city. Well, hospitable … We’re letting Toronto come here, but we’re going to do what we have to do, of course!”