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Toronto FC players Nick Hagglund (6), Michael Bradley (4), Jozy Altidore (17) and Will Johnson (7) block a free kick during the team’s 5-0 win over New York City FC at on Nov. 6, 2016. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
Toronto FC players Nick Hagglund (6), Michael Bradley (4), Jozy Altidore (17) and Will Johnson (7) block a free kick during the team’s 5-0 win over New York City FC at on Nov. 6, 2016. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

TFC, Montreal Impact look to carry momentum through playoff break Add to ...

Just as Toronto FC has turned itself around, going from perennial mediocrity to a Major League Soccer train gathering momentum on the playoff track, it has to shut down for two weeks.

In most other professional leagues, teams such as TFC – coming off three big playoff wins – would be maintaining their momentum and rolling immediately into their conference final. Ditto for the Montreal Impact, who will fight TFC for the Eastern title. Instead, both teams have to wait until the two-leg series opens in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Nov. 22.

Such is life in MLS, where players’ international duties regularly intrude and force breaks in the schedule with no regard for a team that has caught fire and wants to keep a good thing going.

Thus, midfielder Michael Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore, two of the Reds’ most important players, have to report for international duty with the U.S. national men’s team for two World Cup qualifiers scheduled for Nov. 11 and Nov. 15.

It has to be a maddening situation for MLS managers and coaches. But TFC head coach Greg Vanney exuded restraint when asked about the break after the Reds crushed New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semi-final on Sunday.

“I don’t love it just because I think we’re healthy, we’re sharp,” he said. “I never really love it at this time of year when players go away, because their focus is on something else, and rightly so, but something completely different.

“We’ll use the time as wisely as we can, make sure that guys get the break that they need, get healthy, get motivated. It’s not ideal, but it happens everywhere.”

Yes, it happens everywhere, but not equally for all teams. Montreal, for example, has three players – defenders Laurent Ciman and Ambroise Oyongo, and midfielder Johan Venegas – away for international duty compared to two for TFC. But neither of the Montreal players is as critical to his team’s chances as the missing Reds. Should Bradley or Altidore suffer an injury, the consequences for TFC would be severe.

Fortunately for both teams, their most dynamic offensive players both escaped international call-ups. Impact striker Ignacio Piatti and TFC forward Sebastian Giovinco, can rest for the next two weeks. Something else they have in common is that neither was among the three finalists in voting for the most valuable player in MLS, a motivating factor in the playoffs, especially for Giovinco, who won the award last season.

This is a playoff of firsts: It is the first time Montreal and Toronto have advanced this far, and it is the first time in MLS history that two Canadian teams will meet in a conference final.

The key for both teams is the same – stop the other’s top offensive threat. For TFC, this means employing the same aggressive defensive tactics on Piatti as the Reds did in shutting down NYCFC’s David Villa. The challenge is a little tougher for the Impact, as Altidore can be as much of a headache as Giovinco.

Reds defender Drew Moor says TFC rolled over NYCFC because the Reds played a two-way game as a team. The way to the MLS Cup is to keep doing that, while taking inspiration from the superb play of Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley.

“We’re playing confident. Our stars are shining right now,” Moor said. “You look at some of the other players who don’t have the names of some of these guys, and they’re turning in complete performances. We’re staying organized, we’re feeding off of each other right now. It’s a lot of fun.”

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