Rivalry Week

Toronto FC vs. CF Montréal: What will define new-look Canadian Classique?


The year’s first Canadian Classique arrives this weekend, taking on a different complexion.

New managers are leading both teams – John Herdman is amid his first full season in charge of Toronto FC, while the same goes for Laurent Courtois and CF Montréal.

So, what should we expect to see Saturday at BMO Field (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)?

Let’s dive into both sides of this Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire matchup.

What John Herdman’s Toronto team looks like

Tactically, Herdman’s first real season in charge of a professional club team (any club team, not just Toronto) has looked a lot like we expected it would. Yet somehow, at the same time, it’s not at all been what we expected.

Allow me to explain.

TFC have largely used a 3-4-3 shape, one Herdman used quite often during his time in charge of the Canadian men’s national team. Stylistically, they’ve done a bit of everything. They’ll press in one moment before sitting deep in the next. With the ball, they’ll go direct in transition on one attack before easing off the gas and pinging the ball around. That flexibility should sound familiar to Canadian fans, too.

With a pair of uber-skilled Italians running the show in Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne, Herdman always had to craft a system that let those two Designated Players dictate the game with a solid structure around them.

But not all of Herdman’s decisions have been obvious ones. Rather, his choice to use Bernardeschi as an inverted right wingback has been one of MLS’ most unexpected tactical tweaks.

Before this season, the 30-year-old’s name was written in pen on the wing in the best version of Toronto’s lineup. Now, Bernardeschi has been an incredibly attacking outside back, allowing Herdman to squeeze an extra midfielder into the lineup. The Italian’s defensive contributions are suspect, though Toronto can shift to a temporary back four with the opposite wingback joining the three center backs to give him extra leeway in transition. If they don’t do that, then… uh… stuff like this happens:

But with the ball, the former Juventus attacker has three goals in his last two MLS games, is creating chances at a high level relative to both outside backs and forwards, and demands so much respect from opposing defenders that space opens up early and often for willing runners in central spots.

Oh, and he’s doing stuff like this:

It’s been weird. It’s been fun. In more ways than one, those descriptors paint a solid picture of the first third of Toronto FC’s 2024 campaign.

What Laurent Courtois’ Montréal team looks like

It looks really, really pretty. Well, at least sometimes it looks really, really pretty:

Wilfried Nancy’s fingerprints are all over MLS at this point, and that’s certainly the case in Montréal these days. Former Columbus Crew 2 manager Laurent Courtois has instituted several very similar principles in Montréal to what Nancy uses down in Columbus.

Montréal prefer a 3-4-3 shape, they’re in the top third of the league in passes per sequence (according to Opta), and they’re fifth in the league in short passes per 90 (according to FBref). If that beautiful team goal up above Jules-Anthony Vilsaint finished against Inter Miami last weekend didn’t already clue you into the Columbus/Montréal similarities, those stats sure should.

Now, while acknowledging the similarities, there are several key differences between CF Montréal and the Crew. Let’s run through them:

  1. Montréal aren’t close to being in Columbus’ talent bracket. There isn’t a single Cucho Hernández or Diego Rossi in this team. I’m not even sure there’s a Jacen Russell-Rowe.
  2. Montréal aren’t as dogmatic in their approach. Courtois has been willing to cede possession away from home this year, to the tune of a 44% possession average on the road.

The more you watch them, the more Montréal end up looking Crew-lite. They’re a principled team featuring observable patterns with and without the ball, but they’re not talented enough or experienced enough in Courtois’ system to take opposing teams to task on a regular basis.

But man, if you find yourself asking “Can this team really threaten from their spot below the playoff line,” I would kindly refer you back to that Vilsaint goal.

What to watch for

When I’m watching this one on Saturday, the first thing I’ll be eyeing is: Which team tries to dominate the ball?

If this game was set in Montréal or on a neutral ground, I’d be confident in Courtois’ team taking on the protagonist’s role. But with this one being in Toronto and with Montréal’s tendency to drop their line of confrontation and play against the ball away from home, Toronto could end up with the lion’s share of possession.

Still, if Montréal control the ball for long stretches, two questions emerge. First, can they break Toronto’s 5-4-1 block without truly game-breaking talent? And second, can they set up a strong rest defense and counter-pressing structure to limit the Italians attacking in transition? Those are game-defining questions for the visitors.

If Toronto keep a bit more of the ball, attention shifts to Bernardeschi’s effectiveness on the right and Insigne’s involvement on the left. Those two can put games out of reach for opponents almost on their own. It’s not just about attacking play for Toronto FC, though. I wrote this last week looking ahead to this game and I think it very much applies here:

With Bernardeschi tilting his team’s shape so far toward one side, there’s almost always space for a weak-side runner to cause problems for Toronto FC’s defense. That’s where Ruan will come into play for CF Montréal. Laurent Courtois’ right wingback should have ample room and opportunity to get on the end of a quick switch from one of his teammates before knifing into the heart of a recovering defense.

Staying connected in their 3-4-3 structure, both with and without the ball, will be crucial for Toronto FC to help compensate for their tendency to over-extend towards the right side.

With tactical battles aplenty and narratives waiting to be constructed, this edition of the Canadian Classique could be part of the first chapter of a new era for one of these teams. Which one? Well, we’ll find out Saturday.