MONTREAL — If the natural rivalry between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact has only simmered for the last four Major League Soccer seasons, it could get very hot, very soon.
The teams meet at sold-out Saputo Stadium in the regular-season finale on Sunday with both sides looking to gain home-field advantage in the playoffs, where it is not out of the question that they will face each other again.
"It's a huge game," Montreal coach Mauro Biello said. "I'm a Montreal native and there has always been big games against Toronto over the years.
"This one is a big game and there are a lot of star players involved. It's great for the fans and for the rivalry."
It will be the first meeting between TFC star Sebastian Giovinco, an MVP favourite with 22 goals and 15 assists, and Montreal's scoring machine Didier Drogba, who has nine goals in his first 11 MLS games.
Toronto has beaten Montreal in two meetings this season, both at BMO Field, with Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore scoring in each game and Giovinco scoring once. It was after their last meeting, a 2-1 TFC win on Aug. 29, that Frank Klopas was fired and Biello took over as interim head coach.
Since then, the Impact has gone 6-2-2, thanks largely to Drogba's finishing and some tighter play on defence.
"I think they're in for a surprise," said Impact fullback Donny Toia. "It's the same team but our mindset is different and we have a lot more confidence now.
"We played well against New England (a 1-0 away win last week) and we've been playing well through the last part of the season. We've got to keep rolling."
Dubbed Decision Day by MLS, all Eastern Conference teams finish the regular season at the same time (5 p.m. ET) on Sunday, and all the West teams start two hours later.
Toronto (15-14-4) is fourth in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of Montreal (14-13-6). TFC reached the playoffs for the first time in nine MLS campaigns while the Impact are in for a second time four years.
The top two teams in each conference get a bye to the semifinals. The next four teams play a one-game knockout match next Wednesday or Thursday to determine the other two conference semifinalists, with third place playing host to sixth and fourth hosting fifth.
TFC, with 49 points, can take second place with a win if there is a tie between D.C. United and Columbus, ranked second and third respectively.
Montreal, with 48, can finish third with a win if Columbus loses or ties.
There are many combinations, but if Montreal and TFC tie and stay where they are in the standings, they would meet again in the knockout game in Toronto.
A subplot this week came from TFC coach Greg Vanney, who faced Drogba in the early 2000s while playing for Bastia in the French league. Vanney said of Drogba: "One minute he's a beast, and the next minute he falls over."
Vanney has since said he was complimenting Drogba for being both good and smart on the field. Drogba heard the comment and said it was "OK" and that he was not angry.
Biello only said that each coach has to prepare his team in his own way.
"It's important that we approach this game in the most serious of manners," said Biello, back home after four straight road games. "We're expecting a difficult game against another team that wants to put itself in a better position.
"We're back in front of our fans and we want to put on a good performance."
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press