Rivalry Week

Canadian Classique arrives at crucial time for Toronto FC, CF Montréal


“As a coach, I've got to believe my players and support and back my players.”

Whatever your view on what happened or didn’t happen in and around Toronto FC’s two ill-tempered matches vs. New York City FC this season, set it aside for a moment and consider those words from TFC head coach John Herdman during a media availability this week ahead of Saturday's Canadian Classique between Toronto vs. CF Montréal as part of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

The precise events of the scuffles between TFC and NYCFC, the latter of which unfolded at BMO Field last Saturday, are reportedly now under investigation and may take some time to unspool. What matters most for our purposes is what Herdman’s response to the contretemps says about how he constructs and motivates a group.

The Herdman method

The Englishman goes to great lengths to build culture. He’ll be making certain TFC’s players know they’re part of a sturdy collective where unity, loyalty and commitment are core values, whatever the outside world sends in their direction. After all, this is a coach who did exactly that with the Canadian men’s national team to elevate that program to unprecedented heights, finishing tops in Concacaf’s Octagonal qualifying round as they ended a 36-year World Cup drought.

Those lengths included commissioning a medieval broadsword emblazoned with the team’s mission (“Qatar 2022”) and slogan, and carrying it many thousands of miles across their long, winding road through qualification. The CanMNT would plant the sword in the turf at midfield of every stadium they played in, with the notable exception of Costa Rica, where customs officials did not allow it to enter the country in time to be deployed at San Jose’s Estadio Nacional, and Los Ticos edged Les Rouges 1-0, one of only two defeats in a 14W-2L-4D overall qualifying record.

“I said to these boys, we've always had a shield. But we created a sword and on the sword it says 'Nihil timendum est,' which is 'Fear Nothing' [in Latin],” explained Herdman when the blade’s existence went public. “That's New Canada. That's the swagger we want to play with. And it goes into every stadium to symbolize we'll own their ground and be New Canada.”

This is how Herdman builds his teams. Call it a siege mentality if you like; it generally works. So far he seems to be on a comparable course at TFC, who despite losing their last two matches sit above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference table at 6W-6W-1D, well ahead of the schedule most envisioned his rebuilding project taking.

Even when they’ve been shorthanded -- as they very much were in Wednesday’s 2-0 setback at Nashville SC and likely will remain as their deepest rivals hit town on Saturday -- they’ve mostly been dogged and difficult to beat.

Toronto have on balance been far more cohesive than the messy bunch that quarreled their way to a Wooden Spoon finish last year. Amid all the sound and fury currently swirling around them, they may still be considered favorites in this edition of the Canadian Classique, a truly underrated MLS derby that taps into a deep, centuries-old civic rivalry between Canada’s two biggest cities.

Montréal at a crossroads

Sometimes it’s a custom-crafted sword that can help provide a touchstone; at other moments, it might be as simple as a one-word tweet with an accompanying locker-room photograph.

Montreal (3W-6L-3D) are also under the proverbial cosh lately. They too are in the opening months of a new era under a first-year head coach, and back-to-back home losses to Inter Miami and Columbus leave them on a five-game winless skid that’s taken them to 13th place as they travel to Ontario. The bright early results of a six-game season-opening road slate have given way to more expected, and sobering, setbacks for Laurent Courtois and his staff, along with an untimely injury outbreak.

Meanwhile, midfield linchpin Mathieu Choinière has reportedly requested a trade amid a stalemate in contract extension talks, and to further complicate matters, respected vice president and chief sporting officer Olivier Renard just left the club. He did so despite having earned plaudits for his work in keeping CFM competitive despite one of the lowest salary outlays in the league, along the way reaping a series of lucrative outbound transfers totaling millions of dollars in fees.

Members of the Montréal camp have thus far given the tersest of responses when asked about their reactions to Renard’s departure, their silence conveying volumes, at least in the eyes of the substantial local press pack that covers CFM. For his part, Courtois was glowing in his praise for Renard when speaking to MLSsoccer.com earlier this spring, explaining that he’d been “desperate” to get the job over the winter once he’d concluded that Renard and assistant sporting director Vassili Cremanzidis “were exactly the right fit” for his first crack at a first-team head coaching post.

Courtois has counseled patience and a long-range view throughout, understandable given the intricacy of the possession-based system he is working to install with the Bleu-Blanc-Noir. Owner Joey Saputo’s track record suggests Montréal are home to the most reliably hot seat in MLS. Yet if there’s any need for a reminder of the merits of continuity, former CFM boss Wilfried Nancy provided it with his Crew side’s slick performance in their 3-1 midweek win at Stade Saputo.

It was just the type of attractive and formidable display the Montréal faithful saw often from their side in their record-breaking 2022 campaign under Nancy, and which Courtois, Columbus’ MLS NEXT Pro coach for two years, aspires to eventually produce.

“We were excited to come back home, but if we leave with no points then it doesn’t really mean anything,” said captain and spiritual leader Sam Piette. “We do some things well and some things less well, and we’re paying for them.”

Tribal clashes like Toronto-Montréal, with the powerful emotions they invoke, can cut sharply against recent form. Or they can lay bare a team’s flaws with the cold light of a surgeon’s operating room. Whatever direction the knife takes on Saturday, it looks likely to give both Herdman and Courtois a telling snapshot of the state of their projects.