TORONTO — Familiarity breeds contempt, and there is certainly no love lost between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
Arch rivals since first meeting in the Canadian Championship in 2008, the two sides have staged memorable contests over the years. There may be none bigger than Wednesday night's clash at BMO Field, which will determine the Eastern Conference representative in the MLS Cup final.
The Impact head into Wednesday's second leg holding a slight advantage after taking last week's monumental series opener 3-2 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, but TFC will feel quite comfortable in the knowledge that a 1-0 victory is one of several ways it can claim the aggregate victory.
Bolstered by a stadium-record crowd that is expected to swell to around 36,000, Toronto will need to claim an outright victory to advance against its biggest foe. Given that these teams have played each other across three different competitions this season (MLS regular season, Canadian Championship, and MLS playoffs), there will be very little that TFC can do to surprise its Quebec-based opposition.
But that sense of familiarity works both ways.
"This will be the seventh time that we've played Montreal [in 2016] so there's really no secrets in that aspect," TFC goalkeeper Clint Irwin told reporters on Tuesday. "We know them inside and out, they know us inside and out, and it's just going to be a battle."
Teams that see each other so often tend to build up animosity toward one another, and that becomes amplified when the clubs are arch rivals. Add in the intensity of a playoff environment with a berth in the cup final on the line and it's a recipe for some chippy play.
The 61,004 inside Olympic Stadium last week were treated to a physical game that somehow saw no yellow cards given out. That doesn't mean there wasn't any bad blood or gripes about the way the game was officiated — Impact defender Hassoun Camara opined to the Montreal press on Tuesday about whether TFC's Sebastian Giovinco had been given the superstar treatment from the officials in the first leg.
When given the chance to respond, Toronto captain Michael Bradley wasn't interested in feeding into the off-field mind games. Instead, the American international said he and his teammates were focused on how to beat Montreal on the pitch.
"They have a clear way of playing," Bradley explained. "They're very committed to it. They're disciplined in terms of keeping space tight, keeping things in front of them, not being afraid to drop deep, and then obviously the ability they have in transition, especially with a few guys."
"They are who they are," Bradley added. "They've not changed, we understand that. We've had good success against Montreal this season so we feel like we have a good grip on them, on how they want to play, on different ways that we can make the game difficult for them and turn the tables in our favor."
To keep the momentum moving in TFC's direction, the home side will have to contend with a counterattack that has burned the Reds on several occasions this year. Last week's match quickly became a nightmare for Toronto, as the Impact jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to three quick counterattacks that left TFC reeling.
Bradley identified Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro as leaders of the Impact's signature transition game, and he even conceded that the two Montreal attackers will likely have chances to charge the open field on Wednesday night.
It's just what the Impact do, and it's just another facet of Montreal's game that TFC has become accustomed to this year.
"Over the course of several games, that's really how they've gotten their goals against us — it's three or fewer passes that's [led to] the vast majority of their goals," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said, echoing his captain's assessment. "It's definitely something we've focused on in terms of our [defensive] organization."
Stopping goals is one thing, but TFC knows it'll need to score at least once at BMO Field to have any chance at moving on to next month's MLS Cup final. With that in mind, and with six games' worth of experience against the Impact this year in hand, Bradley shrugged when asked whether his team's mentality would need to change due to needing a goal.
It's just another scenario in a rivalry that's seen plenty of them.
"We start every game we play thinking that we have to score a goal," Bradley said. "So on that end it changes absolutely zero."