Patrice Bernier

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP

Toronto-Montreal preview: Canada’s eyes turn to BMO Field

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This is, quite frankly, the biggest match in Toronto FC history.

While there have been high-profile friendlies against majestic teams like Real Madrid, CONCACAF Champions League-berth battles, and venue-unveiling evenings, there has never been a chance to go to MLS Cup for the Reds.

For the opportunity to come against Canadian rivals Montreal? Even better.

[ MORE: Projecting Arena’s January camp ]

The bright lights of Canada’s biggest city shine on the second leg of the Eastern Conference final, a 7 p.m. kickoff at beautiful BMO Field.

Toronto trails 3-2, but scooped up a pair of potentially huge road goals through Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.

How will Montreal react to their one-goal advantage, knowing that danger lurks with the concession of a single goal? Impact veteran Patrice Bernier said he knows the club can “score a goal and defend better“, a tacit acknowledgment that buttressing the lead is important to coach Mauro Biello’s vision of reaching the MLS Cup Final.

Montreal managed a point in 11 of 17 road matches during the regular season, second to only the Galaxy. TFC will have to get past a deadlock to keep its dreams alive, but how will Greg Vanney go about it? Given the way Drew Moor and company have defended this year, the TFC boss could unleash the dogs knowing that a two-goal win or 1-0 or 2-1 would be enough, and 3-2 would push it to extra time.

There’s so much at stake here: national bragging rights and a chance at the final. For TFC, there’s the chance for a historic and lucrative home final.

Let’s go.

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Playoffs: Taking stock after leg 1 of conference semis

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We’re halfway to the conference finals portion of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs following the playing of four conference semifinals first legs on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

As things stand, I’m feeling really good about my final four prediction of the New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact, FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers. That said, there’s still a lot of soccer to be played before I’m proven right (or right), so let’s talk about who’s feeling good ahead of Sunday’s second legs.

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. UnitedFIRST LEG RECAP

The only side to win any away from home in their respective first leg, the Red Bulls, who already have the Supporters’ Shield in the bag, are sitting pretty ahead of Sunday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena. The worry is still that they lack the guy to score the big goals in a high-scoring or high-pressure game — Dax McCarty scored the lone goal on Sunday — but they’re so incredibly solid through the spine that they limit chances better than perhaps any team in the league.

On the other side, the 2015 season has lasted roughly three months too long for the 2015 edition of United, which is a very kind way of saying they’re old, tired and crawling over the finish line that is to be the conclusion of their season. Dreadful set-piece defending, which must be the no. 1 calling card of a team playing “Benny (Olsen) ball,” seemed the surest sign there’s just no gas — or fight — left in the tank for 2015. Red Bulls should advance with a single goal on Sunday.

[ MORE: Jason Kreis fired after just one season at New York City FC ]

Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal ImpactFIRST LEG RECAP

If you’re buying into the “Impact are a one-man team” narrative, that Didier Drogba is the only thing they have going for them and can only win when he scores three goals a game, you’re sorely mistaken. 36-year-old Patrice Bernier rolled back the clock last week, scoring two goals and setting up another between the Impact’s knockout round and first leg triumphs. They’re also incredibly tough to beat because they don’t beat themselves (i.e. turn the ball over in midfield), which curtailed Crew SC’s desire to get out and run in the first leg.

So much of what Crew SC have done this year is dependent upon turning opponents over in the middle third and being the quicker side to react. They can overwhelm the very best defensive units with wave after wave of Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and 22-goalscorer Kei Kamara. To overcome their first-leg deficit — that early away goal was huge — they’ll need to create more than six chances in the second leg.

[ MORE: Gerrard “wasn’t aware of” certain challenges he’d face in MLS ]

FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle SoundersFIRST LEG RECAP

Yet another road team that got out to an early lead, then coughed up a pair of late goals to give up a chunk of their first-leg advantage, but cling to the vital away goal as reason for optimism. FCD created counter-attacking chances at will in the first leg, until they decided to ease up and attempt to ride out the inevitable second-half surge. The center of the field was there for FCD to own, given Osvaldo Alonso’s absence, and for the first 45 minutes they carved the Sounders to pieces with quick counters straight up the gut. If Alonso is unable to go on Sunday (questionable – adductor), it should be more of the same and a handful of goals scored and/or set up by Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz.

The Sounders also missed Brad Evans, who has started or finished games in five or six different positions this season, along the back line. So much more fleet of foot than Zach Scott, Evans provides a mobile partner to Chad Marshall’s hulking aerial presence. Without either one of Alonso or Evans, the Sounders might as well roll out of red carpet down the center of the field to usher Castillo and Diaz in on goal.

[ MORE: Team of the Week — Stars of the MLS Cup Playoffs (so far) ]

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland TimbersFIRST LEG RECAP

We learned nothing from the first leg. The Timbers are pleased to be the only team to have not conceded an away goal, the Whitecaps are pleased to take the series home with everything still to play for, and any of us who watched this game hate soccer a little bit more now than we did before kickoff of the first leg for having watched it.

Darlington Nagbe has finally found a home as a central midfield, though this revelation has been occurring for the better part of a month now. He’s truly a handful when he’s allowed to get on the ball north of 50 times a game, as was the case in the first leg. There’s no better dribbler in tight spaces than Nagbe in all of MLS, and the crowds of defenders he routinely attracts opens up so much space for the likes of Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace and Lucas Melano. It’s far from too late for Nagbe to have his breakout party in 2015, but thinking about him running the show next March will have Timbers fans feeling excited all winter long.

MLS Team of the Week — Stars of MLS Cup Playoffs (so far)

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Don’t look now, but after last week’s knockout round games and the first legs of the conference semifinals on Sunday, we’re very nearly at the halfway point (47 percent, to be exact) of the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

This is the time of year where “big-game players” so often step up and will there side to victory, to advancement and in some instances, championships. We never have any clue who’s going to step up and show out once the playoffs begin, but it’s a chance for anyone and everyone to cement their status as a club legend with a strong showing in November and December.

[ LEG 1: DCU 0-1 RBNY | SEA 2-1 FCD | MTL 2-1 CLB | POR 0-0 VAN ]

Through on week of the 2015 playoffs, the following players have stood head and shoulders about the crowd: Patrice Bernier (two goals, one assist in two games), Andreas Ivanschitz (one goal, one assist in two games), Fabian Espindola (two assists in the knockout round) and Kendall Waston (one clean sheet in one game).

Thoughts? Questions? Agreements? Disagreements? (Of course not.) Leave them in the comments section, as always. I’m not afraid to defend my picks.

[ MORE: 2015 MLS Team of the Week archive ]

MLS Team of the Week — MLS Cup playoffs (so far)

Goalkeeper: David Ousted (Vancouver Whitecaps)

MLS Goalkeeper

Defenders: Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Donny Toia (Montreal Impact), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers)

MLS Defenders

Midfielders: Patrice Bernier (Montreal Imapct), Andreas Ivanschitz (Seattle Sounders), Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls)

MLS Midfielders

Forwards: Fabian Espindola (D.C. United), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution)

MLS Forwards

MLS Cup Playoffs: Montreal Impact 2-1 Columbus Crew SC

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Montreal Impact, the hottest team in Major League Soccer to finish the 2015 regular season, took a large step toward advancing to the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, as they held serve at home and outlasted Columbus Crew SC in the first leg of the conference semifinals. Federico Higuain put the visitors ahead just past the half-hour mark, a vital away goal or so it seemed, but L’Impact hit back with goals scored by Patrice Bernier and Johan Venegas to take a slim lead into next Sunday’s second leg at MAPFRE Stadium. Didier Drogba appeared to have scored the game’s opening goal in the 15th minute, but his tally was ultimately ruled out on a rather suspect handball decision by referee Chris Penso and crew.

[ MORE: MLS playoff predictions | Preseason predictions revisited ]

Three moments that mattered

33′ — Higuain finishes to grab an away goal — This probably isn’t where Drogba intended for his headed clearance to go, straight to the right foot of Higuain, a clinical finisher on most occasions. Alas, that’s exactly where it went and the Argentine did not disappoint with his strike.

37′ — Bernier heads home for the equalizer — Crew SC struggled with defending set pieces. No, like, they really struggle with it. It was their biggest issue all year long, and it’s apparently not been solved ahead of the playoffs. Bernier got lost among the tall trees’ zonal marking and headed past Steve Clark for the quick equalizer.

77′ — Venegas finishes on the breakaway for 2-1 — Venegas had Drogba to his right, a simple square pass away from walking the ball into Crew SC’s net, but the Costa Rican opted to go it alone and finish far post past Clark to send the Stade Saputo crowd into raptures once again. For his own well being, it’s a good thing he scored.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Patrice Bernier

Goalscorers: Higuain (33′), Bernier (37′), Venegas (77′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: Montreal Impact 3-0 Toronto FC

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Montreal Impact are into the Eastern Conference semifinals, while Toronto FC’s first foray into the MLS Cup Playoffs were extremely short-lived — as in 90 minutes-short — following a resounding walloping, 3-0 by the Impact, Thursday night at Stade Saputo. Patrice Bernier, Ignacio Piatti and Didier Drogba (shocking, right?) provided the goals in the first-half barrage to send their Canadian rivals back to Toronto with something still to work toward in 2016: hosting a playoff game for the first time in club history. Meanwhile, the Impact (my pick to win the East crown) are set for a conference semifinal tussle with Columbus Crew SC, which begins Sunday. The Impact’s victory, coupled with that of D.C. United on Wednesday, means the no. 1-seed New York Red Bulls will face their Atlantic Cup rivals in the other conference semi.

[ MORE: MLS playoff predictions | Preseason predictions revisited ]

Three moments that mattered

18′ — Bernier slots past Konopka for 1-0 — Piatti is quietly one of the two or three best pure no. 10s in all of MLS, so it comes as no surprise to those that watched the Impact regularly over the last 18 months that he weighted this ball for Bernier perfectly.

33′ — Piatti pounces on Kantari’s slip for 2-0 — Ahmed Kantari slips — which, you know, it happens sometimes — as the ball was played to him across the backline. Piatti, unlike most MLS attackers, was quick to pounce and punish the Moroccan’s mistake.

39′ — Drogba finshes Bernier’s cross for 3-0 — This is a truly incredible example of dreadful defending. Seven players, all inside the penalty area, all within 10 yards of one another. Meanwhile, that’s Drogba waltzing toward the back post with… well, no one around or even aware he’s there.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Bernier (18′), Piatti (33′), Drogba (39′)