From MLS to USL, 401 Derby meetings with the Montreal Impact mean a little bit extra for Toronto FC

TORONTO – When Michael Bradley joined Toronto FC in January 2014, the club’s supporters made the line in the sand quite clear: Toronto is on one side; Montreal, on the other. 

Speaking ahead of TFC’s Wednesday’s home match against the rival Impact (8 pm ET, TSN and RDS in Canada, MLS LIVE in the US), Bradley made it clear that he heard their message.

“These rivalry games, when you get to a club, they’re the first games that you hear the fans talk about it,” he said. “For me, that was certainly the case. When I got here, it was ‘playoffs, playoffs, playoffs’ and ‘Montreal, Montreal, Montreal.’ For us, they’re big games. They’re exciting games. We know that our fans will certainly be up for it. Montreal is coming off a positive run, so we expect a good game.”

This week is MLS Rivalry Week, and teams around the league are gearing up to take on their most bitter opponents. For Toronto FC, that means a visit from the Impact. 

Known as the 401 Derby, the matchup is the most heated rivalry in all of Canada. The disdain between Toronto and Montreal runs deep in the history of the country, which was once split into two very distinct halves, Upper and Lower Canada.

Whether it’s in the separation between the use of the English or French language, the dominant religion in the country’s formative years between Protestantism and Catholicism, or even something as simple as clashing shades of blue and red, Montreal and Toronto have almost always been on opposite sides of any argument.

On a sporting side, this rivalry was born and raised on the ice, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens duking it out for decades in the NHL. On the pitch, it’s the Toronto FC and Montreal Impact supporters who make the 401 Derby special.

There is a very tangible, mutual dislike between the supporters’ groups of both clubs, and it’s the differences between the groups and the culture of their home cities that makes this rivalry what it is.

Bradley, who has played in his fair share of big derbies during his career, has noticed, and the TFC-Impact matchup has clearly left an impression on the US national team midfielder.

“They’re all special. They really are,” Bradley said of the derby days in his career. “Obviously when you talk about the US national team, games against Mexico are just different. Early in my career, in a small Dutch club in the North of Holland called Heerenveen, playing against Groningen, were always big games; later, in Monchengladbach against Cologne, then Roma against Lazio, here, Toronto against Montreal, they’re fun games to play in. They all have their own feel, they’re all a little bit different but it doesn’t change what they’re all about.” 

While each of those rivalries offer a unique culture of their own – whether it be dos a cero for the US or the aggressive, intimidating atmosphere in the Italian capital – Bradley says each derby has one common thread: They’re all about “the passion and emotion of the fans and what the game means to them.”

“You can talk about different derbies, you can compare them, but in the end of the day it’s about the fans and their feelings towards the game and towards the team,” Bradley said. “You have to understand that, respect that and know that those things will come together in a way to make an exciting game, a game that is, in a lot of ways, different than the rest.”

Different may just be the key word for Toronto and Montreal this year. The TFC-Impact feud has changed drastically over the years, evolving from a matchup dominated by Toronto while the club was in MLS and the Impact were in USL to a more even contest. Now, it’s not only a fair matchup, but it’s one that’s trickled down to both clubs’ developmental squads, as well.

Both teams’ USL-owned clubs, Toronto FC II and FC Montreal, are set to begin a new era in the history of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry in the coming weeks, with TFC II set to open their new stadium in Vaughan, Ontario against FC Montreal on July 4.

“Any time you get to play Montreal is a big game,” said TFC II captain Chris Mannella, a Toronto native who is also on TFC’s senior roster. “They’re our rivals, in hockey as well, and any time we can steal points from them is a win for the entire club and the entire city.

“We are two different cities,” he continued. “For as long as I know, we’ve been rivals, and everybody wants to watch the game because it’s so interesting. You always want to be on top of that rivalry, especially.”

Whether it be at the highest level or in the developmental leagues, Mannella expects some traditional derby soccer to be played between TFC II and FC Montreal.

“It might get a little bit chippy here and there, and words might be said on the field that may not always be said,” Mannella said. “It’s definitely a little bit different than any other game, but you approach it like any other game. It’s no different than preparing for any other match.”

This year, TFC head coach Greg Vanney says the derby is helped not only by a well-established past, but with the form of both teams in league play, too. Despite playing the fewest amount of games in the East, both teams are in the top-five in the conference, with fourth-place TFC two points in front of fifth-place Montreal.

While their solid places in the table should make things even more heated on Wednesday, Vanney says it’s the three points he’s after. Pride comes second. 

“The fans clearly don’t care much for each other in this, which I think makes it all the more interesting,” Vanney said. “It’s two teams who I think are in a good way now and are fighting for respect and position in this league. We’re fighting to be playoff and championship contenders. For me, this rivalry is very intriguing.”