MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC have much to be proud of this season, but now they are set to face one another in a winner-take-all playoff.
The Impact play host to Toronto in the single-game knockout round of the Major League Soccer playoffs on Thursday night before what should be a raucous crowd at Saputo Stadium.
Montreal won home-field advantage with a 2-1 victory Sunday night over TFC, thanks to two second-half goals from Ivorian star Didier Drogba. That moved Montreal into third place in the Eastern Conference, while TFC dropped to sixth.
"There have been a lot of games this year, with (CONCACAF) Champions League and whatnot, but every game gets bigger now," Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush said. "This last game against Toronto was a big game and this is even bigger.
"We're just glad we're playing at home."
TFC went 4-10-3 on the road this season, while Montreal was 11-4-2 at home.
If Montreal wins, it will face Columbus in a two-game, aggregate goals semifinal, while a TFC victory would bring a semifinal matchup with the New York Red Bulls.
Toronto, which spent big to build a gifted attacking squad, is in the MLS playoffs for the first time. It's best regular season to date saw Italian international Sebastian Giovinco win the league's golden boot award with 22 goals and 16 assists.
The Impact, which lost its only previous post-season game 3-0 in Houston in 2013, had a thrilling year in which it reached the Champions League final, then set team MLS records with 15 wins and 51 points.
Montreal went 7-2-2 down the stretch, a run that coincided with Drogba's arrival as a starter and a coaching change that saw Montreal native Mauro Biello replace Frank Klopas. Drogba had 11 goals in as many games and was named MLS player of the month in September and October.
The Drogba-Giovinco matchup could decide the game.
"Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world," said Giovinco. "Everybody knows him.
"So of course we need to be careful and try to put some pressure on him. That's maybe what will determine whether we win the game or not."
While six-foot-two Drogba is an imposing figure inside the penalty area, the diminutive Giovinvo is a waterbug who roams the field collecting balls and making dazzling plays.
"He's not a goal-poacher," TFC coach Greg Vanney said of Giovinco. "He can create things on his own.
"He beats people. He does a lot of different things. It's been an incredibly special season for him and for all of us who have been involved in the league or watched the league to watch him do that."
Including Canadian Championship matches, it will be the sixth meeting between the clubs this year, with Toronto winning three times at home and losing both games in Montreal.
But playing the same team twice in a five-day span could make it a toss-up.
"They've got some key players," said Biello. "Giovinco can unbalance a team by himself.
"Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore — these are quality players who have played in big games. We have to do our best to keep our eye on them while at the same time do what we need to do to be successful."
Wet but mild conditions are expected for the biggest MLS game in both club's histories. Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, who has Impact flags flying at city hall, tweeted that he has a bet on the outcome with Toronto counterpart John Tory.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press