TORONTO — In an otherwise quiet Montreal Impact dressing room Wednesday night, Ambroise Oyongo sat at his locker, deliberately tossing his shoes and shin-pads, one at a time, across the room into a big metal bin.
He bounced them in off the lid, and the noise was jarring, like the clang of a big steel drum.
After a season that saw the Impact sneak into the playoffs way down in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, they came oh so close to an appearance in Major League Soccer's biggest game. But they were edged by arch-rival Toronto FC in a wild 7-5 aggregate loss in a two-game series in the Eastern Conference final.
The losing hurt.
"I don't think anybody expected us to be here," said Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush. "We're certainly proud of getting to this point. It's disappointing we couldn't finish the job and get to the MLS Cup, but I think we'll look back on it with a favourable outlook."
Former Toronto forward Dominic Oduro and Ignacio Piatti scored for the Impact. Oduro opened scoring in the 24th minute, meaning Toronto had to score twice.
Piatti's goal, in the 53rd minute, almost looked like slow motion. The ball bounced off Piatti, and slowly trickled into the net.
But the Impact had no defence for Toronto's set pieces — TFC scored three goals off corner kicks.
"Guys are down in the dressing room. It was gruelling out there," said Impact coach Mauro Biello. "Today was a tough game. A lot of emotions in playoffs. It's a long season, and in the end the players gave everything, all the way to the end. It's a tough moment. . . when you're so close and falling short."
The sting of the loss was all the more sharp, said Bush, because of the fierce rivalry between the two squads, which is growing into soccer's version of the Leafs versus Habs. And Montreal knocked out Toronto in the first round of last season's playoffs.
"Yeah, for sure there's animosity," said Bush. "We've played these guys seven times this year, which in itself is a bit ridiculous to be honest. When you play a team that many times, there's no surprises, there's animosity from previous games.
"But at the end of the day, it's about mutual respect," he added. "They certainly have respect for us, and we have respect for them, and what they've been able to accomplish. All the best to them going forward."
Wednesday night was a fiercely-fought battle, with bodies flying like rag dolls every which way. Montreal midfielder Hernan Bernardello went up for the ball against man mountain Jozy Altidore, and crashed down hard to the BMO Field turf. After remaining on the ground for a couple of minutes, he came off holding his right shoulder. He went through concussion testing, then returned to the game, but didn't play the second half.
"Both teams, in the midfield, nobody wanted to give an inch," said Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier. "Tackles, shoulder to shoulder. You could see it was a question of territory.
"The team fought hard, very proud of this team," he added. "Adversity. Character. Nobody saw us (getting this far), aging team, shouldn't be here. But we managed to find a way to be here."
The longtime Canadian international, who is 37, was asked about his future in the moments after the loss.
"Not going to talk about it now, we'll see in the next few weeks talking with the club," Bernier said. "(Montreal) is home, so I think that's what pushes me to play even more, but we'll see. Personally I do feel like I've got more to give."
A week after the Impact beat Toronto 3-2 in front of 61,004 fans at Olympic Stadium, some 500 fans made the trip from Montreal for the second leg.
"From a fan's perspective, the games were amazing," Biello said. "There's a lot of young soccer players watching these games, and feeling the emotions of the game like that is something that stays with you and grows with you, and it can only help soccer in this country."
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press