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Toronto FC hosts Impact in second leg of championship as rivalry continues

TORONTO — Michael Bradley says Toronto FC's greatest strengths this season has been a consistency in focus and intensity game in and game out.

TORONTO — Michael Bradley says Toronto FC's greatest strengths this season has been a consistency in focus and intensity game in and game out.

But in a Canadian rivalry that grows increasingly hostile with each meeting, Toronto's captain doesn't deny there will be extra energy in the locker-room Tuesday before TFC hosts the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the Canadian championship final.

"One of the great things about this group is the excitement and the energy and the focus for every game has been consistently at a high high level," Bradley said. "But with that, you play a second leg at home, against Montreal with the chance to lift a trophy, there's no doubt there's big excitement. I think the atmosphere (Tuesday) night will reflect that and it's our first chance this year to win a trophy and that's something very important to us."

Matteo Mancosu and Jozy Altidore traded first-half goals in a 1-1 tie in the first leg on Wednesday in Montreal, with TFC's away goal giving them an advantage going into Tuesday's Part 2 of the two-game, total-goals series.

On the eve of TFC's third game in six nights, coach Greg Vanney said there was "good energy" at Monday's practice, which wrapped up just before a rain storm rolled into the city. "You could tell guys are still 12 to 24 hours away from getting their full legs back. (But) my sense is that everybody will be excited to play in front of our home fans and for another trophy."

Vanney said there's a danger, in these gruelling stretches of back to back to back games, of physical and mental fatigue. Training becomes about managing that.  

"As players, you love to play, you love to go and play games," Vanney said. "Training sessions can get grinding, so I think during this stretch even though it gets to be tough, it's fun to play games that are meaningful and fun to play ones that are for championships."

There's little love lost between the two Canadian squads that met in the playoffs the last two seasons. Montreal dispatched Toronto in 2015, and Toronto knocked out Montreal last season in overtime in a wild Eastern Conference final.

Last week's battle had the Impact fuming over Altidore's goal, scored while an Impact defender was on the ground in pain after suffering a nasty gash on his knee.

Fans in both venues, meanwhile, have thrown fuel on the fire. Fans hoisted a sign at Saputo Stadium last week that paired an F-bomb with Toronto. An obscene banner was raised at BMO Field during a loss last August to Montreal.

"Really big night," Bradley said of Tuesday's match. "We hear it's going to be a great crowd, so it's exciting, because the chance still early on in the season to play a big game where everything's on the line is what we all want."

MLS-leading Toronto (10-2-5) is unbeaten at BMO Field this season (7-0-2). The Impact is last in the Eastern Conference (4-5-6). A TFC victory would earn them a berth in next year's CONCACAF Champions League, but if the Impact win, they must play TFC again in August in a one-game playoff.

Amid this busy stretch, TFC got some help from U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, who opted not to pluck Bradley or Altidore for the opening stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

"It's massive," Vanney said, adding he appreciated the decision by U.S. Soccer and Arena.  

The decision was mutually beneficial, said Vanney. Arena plans to look at players who don't play as regularly as Bradley and Altidore.  

"And maybe those two wouldn't play as huge of a role in the early stages, so it doesn't make sense to take them away from their team who's in an extraordinarily busy part of the schedule," Vanney said. "Bruce as a former MLS coach understands the nuances of all that, and the challenges that we face as coaches in this league with international dates and matches still having to be played."

Bradley said Arena knows that he's "ready to go" for the U.S. team whenever he's needed.

"At the same time, I'm very, very excited about the fact that I can be here (in Toronto) over the next stretch," he added, "and make sure that we continue to move along in a good way."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Matteo Mancosu's name.