CF Montréal overcame Toronto FC thanks to a second half Romell Quioto goal to top their rivals in the 2021 Canadian Championship final on Sunday at Stade Saputo. Here’s our recap of the match, and the tournament.
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted sports all over the world, but while most tournaments have been able to resume with mostly regular schedules, the Canadian Championship still hasn’t regained normalcy.
The 2020 edition of the tournament is still yet to be concluded, with Canada Soccer having yet to find a time to schedule the final between Toronto FC and Forge FC. This year, with a new single-leg knockout format, games didn’t all follow the original schedule either, and it took both FC Montréal and Toronto FC missing out on the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs to be able to schedule this fixture before the coldest part of winter arrived. However, after a year which began with home games in Florida, there was real comfort in this date on a sunny November afternoon in Montreal for a chance to lift the Voyageurs Cup.
For CF Montréal this was a chance to defend the trophy, since they were victorious the last time the trophy was lifted 26 months ago, after beating none other than Toronto FC. A lot was different this time around, compared to the night in September 2019 when Ignacio Piatti lifted the trophy for what was then the Montreal Impact.
Although CF Montréal and Toronto FC were the two sides to get byes to the quarterfinal round, their paths to the final were quite different. Toronto, with any realistic hopes of the MLS playoff evaporated, fielded their best XI for each game, and dispatched York United in the first round, before beating Pacific FC 2-1 in a tighter match, but ultimately followed a relatively comfortable path to the tournament’s decider. While all of Toronto’s Canadian Championship play had come in the comfort of BMO Field, Montreal had a couple of difficult trips to make to get to this point.
CF Montréal drew HFX Wanderers in the quarterfinal round, where they went behind in the first half, and only prevailed thanks to a couple of late Ballou Tabla goals. Tabla hasn’t seen much action this season, and he was just one of many players who featured in that game that hadn’t been MLS regulars. A rotated lineup was also fielded by Wilfred Nancy for the semi-final at Forge FC’s Tim Hortons Field, and the result wasn’t any more comfortable. The match was scoreless through regular time, during which Forge looked most likely to score. What followed was one of the most memorable penalty shootouts in recent memory, which saw all 11 players, including goalkeepers, take a shot. It was decided, ultimately, by Sebastian Breza’s save on the Forge goalkeeper, which Triston Henry could not reciprocate. While Toronto was already thinking about salvation in the Canadian Championship final before their MLS season was over, Montreal had to first get over a decision day exit to the hands of Orlando SC at home before setting their sights on this match. This is how, heading into the Championship game at Stade Saputo, the two sides carried histories which were far from similar.
These were just about the best best version of both sides that were pencilled into the team sheets. A full game (and a goal) down in San José, Costa Rica five days prior wasn’t enough to keep Montreal’s Romell Quioto out of the starting lineup. Like with all Canadian Championship fixtures, however, the focus is on the Canadians, since each team must meet the quota of at least three in the starting XI. Each side exceeded that, and started five Canadians. On Montreal’s side, ‘Keeper Sebastian Breza, Kamal Miller, Zachary Brault-Guillard, Joel Waterman, and Mathieu Choinière were selected, while Toronto’s Julian Dunn, Noble Okello, Jonathan Osorio, Richie Laryea and Jacob Shaffelberg all started the match. Notably, Miller, Osorio and Laryea all played on Tuesday for the Canadian National Team in their famous victory over Mexico in Edmonton. Kemar Lawrence and Eriq Zavaleta of Toronto FC were also away for CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers, but were not back in Toronto’s squad for this one. A third Toronto defender, Omar Gonzalez, was also absent due to injury, leaving the way for the inexperienced Dunn to step into the back line. While Montreal’s back line has been much more consistent, both teams did fancy quite similar formations in this one, lining up with a back five. Shaffelburg, a forward on the team sheet, actually played on the left of Toronto’s unusual five-man defence.
Dunn wasn’t given an easy introduction into this game, since within the first 10 seconds Quioto got in behind the 21-year-old defender and had a clear look on goal, which Quentin Westberg was alert to. That got the Montreal crowd, witnessing the first Canadian Championship game played in the city since the first leg of the final two years ago, into the game from the start. What was nice to see was a limited in size, but loyal, contingent of Toronto FC supporters. After all the restrictions supporters have had to face, a derby of this magnitude feels much more complete with supporters of both clubs in the stadium. In the first half it was the home fans who had more to get excited about however, as Montreal set the pace of the game and looked much more lively.
Quioto, Montreal’s main man in many regards, continued to be dangerous. He played a dangerous ball across the box 18 minutes in, before being the receiver of a low cross from the same side six minutes later. All he could get to the ball was a weak touch, and it rolled wide of the far post. Toronto continued to struggle to find their footing as Montreal looked for ways to find a breakthrough. Quioto had a couple more good looks before the half, first getting around Dunn in an impressive show of strength and agility, and second fending off Michael Bradley on a long ball, but on both occasions, Westberg was up to the task, keeping his side level heading into the interval.
While Javier Pérez would have hoped that a half-time talk could get more out of his players heading into the second half, that, unfortunately for The Reds, that wasn’t the case. Montreal looked like the more comfortable of the two teams, and continued to knock on the door. Breza admitted after the game that it was one of those where the longer CF Montréal went without finding a breakthrough, the more the pressure started to mount on them. In the 66th minute Wanyama nearly got it right, settling the ball down at the top of the box and chipping it towards goal, over Westburg’s arm, and straight off of the crossbar. Just six minutes later, however, the ball was back with Quioto, and as it often is with strikers, after missing some chances he seemed sure to capitalize on, he found a way through on a less obvious opportunity. A bouncing ball was played into the Honduran, who this time got the chip just right to get the better of the Toronto FC goalkeeper. The left footed lob left a confused Westurg turning back towards his goal, who seemed to think it was headed wide of the mark. No matter the case, it was a nearly unstoppable finish from a player who, quite frankly, deserved at least a goal on the night. He exited the match six minutes after scoring to a chorus of chants of his name, and was eventually deservingly named Player of the Match.
The Toronto faithful in the crowd still didn’t get the response they hoped for immediately following the goal. And approaching the end of regular time, the Voyageurs Cup seemed a done deal for CF Montréal, but some tense moments for the home fans were still to come. In the 90th minute, a move which started with a dangerous ball over top for Toronto FC substitute Nicholas De Leon fell to Ifunanyachi Achara, who played the ball centrally to Toronto native Jordan Peruzza, who, with a chance to give his side another 30 minutes of life, and an opportunity to steal the Voyageurs Cup, put the ball off the post. It was a golden opportunity with Breza out of position, and in many ways it came out of nothing. Toronto FC turned up the pressure for the last few minutes following that chance, but ultimately, with the stadium to its feet, the ref gave three tweets of the whistle to send Stade Saputo into a frenzy, and confirm CF Montréal 2021 as Canadian Championship champions.
As is the tradition in the “Battle of the North”, the trophy presentation was preceded by a couple of individual awards. The Best Canadian Young Player award was granted to Kentville, Nova Scotia’s Jacob Shaffelberg. Shaffelburg was relatively quiet in the 90 minutes on the day, but he did net the winning goal in Toronto’s semi-final victory over Pacific FC. At only 21 years of age, he has already become an important part of this Toronto FC squad, and is a player to keep an eye on in National Team discussions as well, having already earned three senior caps for Canada.
The George Ross trophy is awarded to the most valuable player of the tournament, of any nationality. Announced to the sound of many cheers, and a raised eyebrow or two, CF Montréal’s Sebastian Breza was given the award. Montreal head coach Wilfred Nancy, and even Breza himself admitted some surprise with the choice, which likely comes from the fact that he didn’t have a single save to make during the whole match, while his counterpart in goal had 9 shots on target to deal with in this game. However, like the Best Canadian Young Player award, it is given based on performances over the span of the entire tournament. In a competition of this format, with specific moments deciding fate, Breza had perhaps the most memorable one of all with his penalty shootout heroics in Hamilton. Breza, born in Ottawa, is another young Canadian player to watch out for. He is actually signed with Bologna FC, and is in Montreal on loan. While his future with the club is uncertain (although he did promise with a wry expression to be back in Montreal next year – at least to visit his parents…) this is another player to keep on the radar for the Canadian national side in the coming years. The 23 year old with a 6 foot 5 frame and ties to Italian clubs is not lacking in potential.
Ramenez la coupe à la maison
The rivalry between Canada’s two MLS Eastern Conference teams predates their league clashes, since they have disputed the Voyageurs Cup since 2002. And in that time, Montreal holds most of the bragging rights. “Bring the cup back home” was blasted on the speakers at Stade Saputo following the hoisting of the trophy. While there needs to be an asterix added to the title of defending champion for CF Montréal, since the Voyageurs Cup title they defended in this one dates back to 2019, no other side has been the home of the Voyageurs Cup more than Montreal, this being their 11th title. Toronto FC sits second, with 7, while the Vancouver Whitecaps are the only other side to have won, with a lone triumph in 2015. This said, all of Toronto’s trophies have come since the competition’s revamp as the “Canadian Championship” in 2008. Only counting championships since then, Toronto leads with 7 trophies to Montreal’s 4. This being a bitter defeat for Toronto to take, they do however have the final of the 2020 edition of the tournament against Forge FC to look forward to as an opportunity to bring the trophy back to the 6ix, should it ever reach a conclusion.
While this match marks the end of the season for both sides, and while the first thing on CF Montréal’s mind will be celebrating a successful end to the season, the victory is much sweeter for them considering the qualification it provides. CF Montréal, by virtue of being Canadian champions, gain direct qualification to the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16. An offseason is between now and the start of that competition, which begins in the third week of February, but it gives that break a different feel, with such a big competition to look forward to. For Toronto FC, some real questions will be posed over the next few months. It is difficult to explain that the talent they have on the field couldn’t muster a finish any higher than second last in MLS. Some shake ups are to be expected, before a 2022 MLS season which they will hope is quite different from the one they just finished.
The field is now set for the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16. Forge FC, who had to work their way through the CONCACAF League had already booked their spot in the big show, which for the first time will feature two Canadian clubs. The draw to set the round of 16 matchups will be held on December 15th, and the tournament itself will get underway on February 15th.
Cover Photo Credits: Canada Soccer