Tonight is the first leg (or match) of the Major League Soccer (MLS) Eastern Conference Championship between Toronto FC (TFC) and Montreal Impact. It features all kinds of great storylines. You've got two of the league's very best players—Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco and Montreal's Ignacio Piatti—going head-to-head. And Toronto and Montreal are rivals who don't like losing to one another (Grrrrr!). During this season, these evenly-matched teams played three times—they each won once and tied the third game.
So this evening's match in Montreal be a loud, thrilling, close contest. But it could also become one of the most important soccer matches ever played in Canada. Why?
A first time for Canada
Let's take a look at the big team sports in Canada. At the top, of course, is hockey. And lately, thanks to some really strong Blue Jays and Raptors teams, baseball and basketball are getting up there, too. But you know what sport is very, very close behind these three?
Soccer is already the most popular team sport for youth in Canada. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, soccer (or football as it is known outside North America) is easily the number one sport. It's not even close. So in a country that is full of as many immigrants as Canada, this has always meant that there are a lot of soccer fans here. The only problem? For a long time, such fanatics had to follow leagues back where their ancestors came from—such as in Germany, England, Spain, Scotland, Brazil, or Italy—to watch great soccer.
But now the MLS is finally starting to give Canadians some homegrown excitement. For the first time ever, both teams in an MLS Conference Championship are Canadian...which also means that a Canadian team is guaranteed to be in the MLS Cup (the league championship) for the first time.
It's taken a while to get here. Toronto FC was founded 11 years ago (the Impact arrived in MLS 6 years ago). TFC midfielder, Jonathan Osorio is from Toronto. He remembers being excited when the team first arrived in his hometown. Unfortunately, that team was pretty bad for a pretty long time. Still, Osorio never lost his desire to play for his hometown team. Now, that dream is real. Same with Montreal captain (and Quebec native) Patrice Bernier. In the past, Canadian players like them had to leave their country to play the sport that they loved. MLS still isn't as big as the top leagues in Europe (home to global superstars like Ronaldo and Messi). But it's become stronger and stronger each season.
And now, over ten years after TFC first joined the league, Canada may finally be getting its own coming out party. Montreal expects over 60,000 fans in Olympic Stadium for the first match. The second match, at Toronto's BMO Field, will likely pack in another 30,000 people. And many more will be watching both games from their screens at home. One team will move on to the MLS Cup (to play the winner of the Western Final between Colorado and Seattle)—the other will go home. But both cities will win in some way. Because there will be thousands of people just like you who watch players like Osorio and Bernier and think, "I want to play soccer for my hometown, too!"
That's how sports grow.