Stejskal: Montreal-Toronto shapes up as clash of Eastern Conference titans

The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC both entered 2016 with championship aspirations, but daunting early-season road blocks.

As long as Montreal could survive the turf-induced absence of Didier Drogba and Toronto could stay afloat during their lengthy season-opening road trip, they could both improve upon their club-best 2015 seasons.

Six games into the year, and Montreal and Toronto aren’t just in good positions to improve on last year – they’re looking like the teams to beat in the East ahead of their rivalry match on Saturday at Stade Saputo (4 pm ET; TSN4 in Canada, MLS LIVE stream in USA).

The Impact are leading the conference with a 4-2-0 record. They’ve taken care of business in the games they should’ve won, beating the Red Bulls and Columbus at home before downing the rebuilding Fire in Chicago on Saturday.

It is Montreal's second-best start, though the sample size there is obviously somewhat small, and it's tied for the third-best start in Toronto history. They were 3-2-1 in 2008, 3-3-0 in 2014 and 2-2-2 in 2009.

Montreal even snuck in a surprise on the road, beating Vancouver in the opener on March 6. Their only losses came in tough road matches at Western Conference foes, falling 2-0 at FC Dallas on March 19 before losing 1-0 at Seattle on April 2.  

They did most of that without Drogba, who came back – really, actually came back – with a bang on Saturday. The Ivorian scored a lovely equalizer in the team’s 2-1 win at Chicago and should be a mainstay in the Impact lineup for the foreseeable future: Montreal don’t play on turf again until May 21, and are only scheduled to hit the artificial stuff four more times this season.

The talented roster Montreal put together last year is gelling well, with 2015 Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman building a fine partnership with Victor Cabrera in the center of defense and Evan Bush looking very solid in goal. Ignacio Piatti (who scored a world-class winner in stoppage-time on Saturday), Harry Shipp, Johan Venegas and Dom Oduro held down the attack just fine sans Drogba, and the Impact lead the East in both goals scored and goal differential.

Saturday’s win at Toyota Park wasn’t the prettiest, but it was a road win – you fight, scrap and take them however they come.

Stejskal: Montreal-Toronto shapes up as clash of Eastern Conference titans -

Toronto FC know all about grinding out away results. TFC are six games into their season-opening eight-game roadie, which was built into the schedule to accommodate another phase of renovations to BMO Field. So far, they’ve managed the trip very well, moving to 2-2-2 on the year after Saturday’s 1-0 win at D.C. United.

This is the second straight year Toronto have begun with a lengthy road trip. They had a seven-game away stretch to start 2015 as the club began their BMO Field facelift. That trip ended well, with TFC winning their final two games to start the year 3-4-0.

They’ll likely end this season’s trip with a similar number of points, but this one has had a very different feel. Toronto were high-flying last year, but they were also a sieve in the back, scoring the second-most goals in the league but giving up 58, tied for the most in MLS. Eleven of those goals against came in their first six games, four of which were losses.

It’s still early, but it looks like Toronto will be much tighter in the back this year. Bolstered by the offseason acquisitions of savvy MLS veterans Drew Moor, Will Johnson, Clint Irwin and Steven Beitashour, Toronto have only given up five goals in their first six games. They’re not scoring as many, but they’re looking far more organized and disciplined.

That newfound maturity was on full display on Saturday at RFK. Sebastian Giovinco put the Reds up 1-0 less than a minute into the game, and TFC made the goal stand up, severely limiting a D.C. team that scored four goals on Vancouver last week.

Toronto were out-possessed, out-shot and out-chanced on Saturday, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t allow D.C. many clear-cut chances, and really locked things down in the second half. Irwin and the back line were stout, but the entire team contributed to the defensive effort. They weren’t their usual selves going forward, but the work that Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley put in on the other side of the ball was invaluable.

As Moor said after the match, there was a deeper theme to Toronto’s win on Saturday. TFC have some incredible attacking players, but they don’t need them to be at their best to win. That’s a big change from last year, and a huge positive for Toronto as they prepare to open their home schedule at the now-stunning BMO on May 7 against Dallas.

Montreal and Toronto would’ve probably been fine with simply treading water to start the year. They’ve both done far more than that.

Other teams will have their say, but for now, days ahead of the first 401 Derby of the season, it looks like the road to the Eastern Conference championship just might go through Canada.