TORONTO - In theory, it was supposed to be a glorified exhibition.
Toronto FC, playing in North America's highest soccer league, Major League Soccer, was supposed to waltz to the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. The only competition was two teams in a lower league, USL First Division's Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps.
Theories, of course, do not always translate to practice.
"There's a lot of talk between the MLS and USL and how different the leagues are," Montreal captain Nevio Pizzolitto said after his team tied Toronto 1-1 at BMO Field Tuesday night. "Let me tell you the leagues aren't all that different. The ball is round."
Indeed, the first Canadian Championship will go down as an underdog's tale. With the draw, Montreal got all it needed to win the three-team tournament and advance to the CONCACAF Champions League.
Montreal (2-1-1) will be Canada's representative in the event, starting a home-and-home against Nicaraguan champion, Real Esteli, on Aug. 27.
"It goes up there with the championship in 1994 and 2004," Montreal coach John Limniatis said. "Winning this competition is a huge thing for us."
It was not an easy thing for the Impact, though. Retreating into a full-fledged conservative defence in the second half, Montreal held onto the tournament by a matter of inches.
In the 89th minute, TFC forward Amado Guevara sent a free kick in from 35 yards that was headed off the post by reserve Julius James. The ball lay around the goal line, but striker Jeff Cunningham could not finish it with the ball at his feet. Montreal goalkeeper Matt Jordan eventually corralled it.
"You want my honest opinion on that? I'm thinking how has he scored 99 goals?" TFC coach John Carver said of Cunningham's effort. The coach also criticized the play of defenders Jim Brennan and Marvell Wynne, as well as that of Guevara.
"That's what I thought. How has he scored 99 goals in this league? Because if you have desire, no matter how you put the ball over the line, you put it over the line."
It was not the only time Montreal appeared in danger. TFC opened the scoring in the 15th minute, when Rohan Ricketts finished off a cross from Brennan.
But the Impact snatched the game right back, when Roberto Brown finished a corner kick from Joey Gjertsen 11 minutes later.
For TFC (1-1-2), the loss serves as a rather embarrassing capper to a dismal stretch. After a solid start to its season, TFC has not managed a win in any of its last nine matches.
"I think if you look at the starting lineup where we have to depend on a 16-year-old boy [Abdus Ibrahim] as our lead striker, that tells you everything," Carver said.
"[We] need not one striker, [we] need two strikers.
"It's blatantly obvious what we need to do," Carver added. "But unless we do something about it, this season is going to peter out. And I don't want that to happen."
For Montreal, the improbable win serves as a stepping stone. Not only does the Impact get Canadian bragging rights, but the tournament victory can also be used as a case for something bigger - inclusion into the higher league.
"I think obviously this helps. This just shows we're capable of competing," Limniatis said. "But the platform already has been set. From what I understand, we're aiming for the start of the 2011 season to be in the MLS. We've shown as a franchise that we belong."