MONTREAL – Olympic Stadium and its spectacular leaning tower loom just beyond one end of the Montreal Impact's wonderful home pitch, intimate Stade Saputo.
Built as the main venue for the 1976 Olympics, "the Big O" and its massive fabric roof offers a bigger stage for the Impact to host Toronto FC for the first leg of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Championship, as well as a controlled environment shielded from late-November weather.
A crowd of at least 55,000 will be on hand when Montreal host Toronto at Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night in the all-Canadian playoff series, which will be the most significant showdown in the history of the 401 Derby (8 pm ET; ESPN in the US, TSN 1/3 & RDS in Canada).
"It's a great venue to have, Olympic Stadium, at this stage of the season," Impact captain Patrice Bernier said Wednesday.
The Impact typically play their first few home games of the MLS season on turf at Olympic Stadium before moving to the grass pitch of Stade Saputo, an open-air stadium with a seating capacity of 20,801.
Bernier welcomes Montreal's ability to offer a bigger stage for the Impact's deepest MLS Cup Playoffs run to date.
"This is going to be special," Bernier said. "And it's a historic moment because the club has been in the league since 2012, and now at the fifth season, to be able to get to this stage and hopefully to move on to other moments, but it is a great moment and just to appreciate it and enjoy it. But it's great to see that the crowd has really responded and we were able to fill up the Big O with 60,000 seats."
The Impact have filled Olympic Stadium with near-capacity crowds on a few occasions, beginning with their home debut on March 17, 2012, when 58,192 were on hand to see Davy Arnaud score Montreal's first MLS goal in a 1-1 tie against the Chicago Fire.
Two months later, David Beckham and the LA Galaxy drew 60,860 to the Big O for a 1-1 draw.
The Impact's biggest moment to date at Olympic Stadium was the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League final, which Montreal lost 4-2 to Club América of Mexico before a crowd of 61,004.
"Unfortunately, we didn't get the result that we wanted," Impact coach Mauro Biello said. "But nonetheless, it was a great experience for everybody that was involved, the players, the coaches, to be able to learn from that. And I think that's what's important. Now, going into a game of the same magnitude, hopefully we can learn from the experience that we had in the [game against] América, and managing emotions and staying concentrated for 90 minutes."
Olympic Stadium hosted 10 soccer games during the 1976 Games, including East Germany's 3-1 win against Poland in the gold medal final before a crowd of 71,617.
Following the 1976 Olympics, the stadium became home to the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League and Major League Baseball's Montreal Expos, who played there until the team moved to Washington, D.C., following the 2004 season.
In the summer of 1977, English rock group Pink Floyd played to 78,322 fans – the biggest paid crowd ever at Olympic Stadium – in a concert that inspired the group to conceive its iconic "The Wall" album. Roberto Duran defeated Sugar Ray Leonard to win the WBC welterweight championship there on June 20, 1980, and Pope John Paul II took part in a youth rally that drew 55,000 in 1984.
And the Montreal Manic hit the peak point of their three NASL seasons when they drew 58,542 for a playoff game against the Chicago Sting on September 2, 1981.
Once the high point of soccer's popularity in Montreal, that playoff game 35 years ago is destined to fade further from memory in the minds of any Impact fans who even recall it. New Olympic Stadium history is set to be made in the here and now of the present, beginning at kickoff Tuesday.
"Obviously it's a special game," Biello said. "I think history is being made here in Canada in terms of a soccer series between two clubs in the MLS that are in the conference final. It's special for us as a club to reach this part in the playoffs, but at the same it's a great opportunity for Canadian soccer to grow and for us to play against our rivals, Toronto. We're hoping for a great game and all the support that we can get."