It’s Toronto-Montreal, need any more be said?
Toronto FC and CF Montreal will meet on Wednesday night at BMO Field in a semifinal of the 2022 Canadian Championship with a trip to the final and a chance at the Voyageurs Cup on the table.
It will be a special night, these occasions always are.
“Rivalries. derbies, especially now, semifinal of a cup – games that take on a different level of intensity, that mean more to fans on both sides – that part's special,” said Bob Bradley on Tuesday.
It will be his first taste of the derby, but the TFC coach is no stranger to history.
“I've seen all the games. I know what the games have looked like. Great games, swings in momentum, comebacks, individual efforts, all the things,” he explained. “When you look back on the best derbies, you have a history of big moments and I certainly think that's true in this case.”
Michael Bradley has played in one or two of these before – in fact he has faced no opposition with TFC more often.
“It's Toronto-Montreal, it's everything that goes with that,” said the TFC captain. “It's the history of the two cities, it's the history of the two clubs, it's the cultural differences between the two cities, it's the pride of the two cities. Everything plays into it, right? As with any rivalry, that only builds over time, it doesn't go away.”
“So when you think about everything that goes into it and then when you look even closer at the games that TFC and Montreal have played on the field over the last seven/eight years – there's been some big games, a lot riding on a bunch of those nights,” he continued. “The more history there is, the more it plays into it in a great way, so we're really excited.”
For much of a young Toronto team, this will be a new experience. They will not be going in unaware, however.
“By and large, it speaks for itself. We have smart guys in our group, guys who love football, who watch games, who pay attention to things. Guys know what these games are all about,” said Michael Bradley. “Over the course of the day today and into tomorrow, there's certain reminders, certain comments that get made as we get closer to kick off. There's always that part, but these games speak for themselves.”
The other semifinal will see Vancouver Whitecaps FC host York United FC with the winners meeting in the final next month.
Montreal, who defeated Forge FC 3-0 to advance to this stage, have had Toronto’s number in the last few head-to-head meetings in the cup.
They won the 2021 final 1-0 and knocked TFC out at the semifinal stage in 2019. Toronto bested Montreal in the all-Canadian portion of the MLS schedule to earn their spot in the 2020 final, but add in a three-game unbeaten run in league play since then and TFC know they are in for a challenge.
Wilfred Nancy’s side, aside from a recent stumble that has seen them lose three of their last four, have been off to a good start in MLS as well, challenging for a top four spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Solid team,” levelled Bob Bradley. “Good way of playing, where they are organized, they've got different ways to go forward. They're a threat on attacking set-pieces. Football wise, they've got some talented, skillful players. They're also a team that has a strong physical dimension, so a solid team.”
When Thierry Henry departed ahead of the 2021 season, Nancy, a long-time assistant in Montreal, was a bit of an unknown.
Navigating a tricky season where Montreal, like Toronto, spent half the season based in Florida and nearly making the playoffs, they finished two points shy of the final berth, had his name in the running for Coach of the Year. And Montreal have picked up where they left off this time around.
“You have to give him a ton of respect,” said Michael Bradley. “A guy who was given an opportunity when Thierry left and quite honestly a guy who some people thought was just going to be there a short time, was just going to be a placeholder, but he's done a fantastic job.”
“He's given them an identity; tactically the way they play really fits a lot of their guys. You can tell that they have a good group, you can tell that the players enjoy playing for him. All the credit in the world to him and the job that he's done.”
Nancy is unbeaten in four matches against TFC – Toronto will be looking to change that on Wednesday.
On the heels of lifting the 2020 Voyageurs Cup at the start of the month with a shootout victory over Forge, TFC want more.
“We got a taste,” said Bob Bradley. “The importance of that, what it means in a player's career, how it helps young players develop, what it means to the fans to be in a final and then hold up a trophy.”
“The pressure in the semifinals is always really big because it's all about getting to a final – that's what's so special,” he continued. “This game takes on just that extra level of everything because it's not only Montreal, but it's this idea that, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get in another final, we have to have a chance to play for another cup.’”