EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of Heineken Rivalry Week, TSN2 will be broadcasting the stunning 2016 Eastern Conference Final clash between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC Thursday at 8 pm ET.
TORONTO – The stage was set.
With the Montreal Impact having taken a three-goal lead inside the opening 52 minutes in the first leg at Olympic Stadium, bringing up memories of their 3-0 dismantling of Toronto FC in the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs – TFC’s first-ever post-season appearance – it was a series that was nearly over before it began.
But Jozy Altidore pulled one back in the 68th minute and Toronto captain Michael Bradley added a second five minutes later to breathe life into TFC and their fans heading into the second leg of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final back at BMO Field.
The biggest game in Toronto history, to that point, an MLS Cup berth on the line – the first appearance of a Canadian team in the final – and bragging rights. All was up for grabs.
Those two late goals went some way to calming the fears, but nobody could have predicted what would come in the falling rain.
“It’s possible, but don't want to get too far ahead of myself and you think that never happens,” Benedict Rhodes, TFC supporter and contributor to Waking the Red, recalled thinking. “I was just hopeful, optimistic, but not really sure what to think.”
But then Dominic Oduro, former TFC striker, scored first for Montreal in the 24th minute – a sacred one for Toronto fans, erasing a precious away goal and giving Montreal a two-goal lead.
“It’s over, it's all going to go downhill from here,” feared Rhodes. “Unless something miraculous happens.”
In front of a packed house of some 36,000 fans, words try, but fail to capture what happened that night. It had to be seen – thankfully, that Eastern Conference Final decider is tonight’s MLS Classics match.
For Kristin Knowles, Day One fan and host of the Vocal Minority Podcast, it was simply the “Best night ever.”
“No matter who you ask, whenever you say, ‘What is your top game as a TFC fan?’ And yes, winning MLS Cup was amazing, but almost everybody will say, the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals and usually they mean the second leg although the entire series was crazy,” she continued. “I was lucky enough to go to both matches, but that night at BMO is the happiest I have ever been at a soccer game.”
“Even thinking about it puts a smile on my face. It had everything: so much emotion, highs, lows, it was a packed house. Not the warmest weather, but we didn't freakin’ care,” she laughed. “I have never hugged so many people, had so many high fives. I had bruises on my legs just from jumping up and down and being bashed into the chairs ahead of me. One of my seatmates injured himself he celebrated so exuberantly and didn't know about it until later.”
Rhodes was watching from his couch in Brampton, north of the city proper.
“Edge-of-the-seat action, you couldn’t look away from it,” he recalled. “I was screaming at the TV all night, whenever something good or bad happened. There was a lot of noise in the Rhodes household that night. A lot of emotions, going back and forth throughout.”
Keep an eye out for the gentleman footballer himself, Benoit Cheyrou, and his entrance into the game in 96th minute, replacing Sebastian Giovinco, a bold move from Greg Vanney. And Steven Beitashour with the sweetest of crosses.
“The occasion, the stakes on the line – getting to the MLS Cup final, and high-scoring games are always exciting,” considered Rhodes. “The best TFC-Montreal game I've ever seen.”