Toronto FC's players and coaches agree the artificial turf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium is lousy. But they aren't making excuses – the uneven surface is the same for the Montreal Impact as well, so it should not be a game-changer for the first leg of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference final.
"When you get to games this big, afterwards nobody is talking about the field," TFC midfielder Michael Bradley said after the Reds' practised Monday at Olympic Stadium in preparation for Tuesday's game. The second and final leg of the historic all-Canadian playoff series goes Nov. 30 at BMO Field in Toronto. The winner will be the first Canadian team to advance to the MLS Cup.
TFC head coach Greg Vanney admitted his players would prefer playing outside in the first blast of winter that just hit both Ontario and Quebec if it meant competing on the natural grass of the Impact's regular home, Stade Saputo. However, since demand for tickets far exceeds the 20,801 seats at Stade Saputo, the game was moved to Olympic Stadium.
"You're exchanging one element for another," Vanney said of moving the game to the enclosed stadium. "When the guys are running around and their intensity is high, I don't know if they take much notice of the weather. I think they would take a [grass] surface over anything."
TFC midfielder Jonathan Osorio agreed, but added the same qualifier as Bradley – that both teams have the problem.
"It's really cold outside so it's nice to play inside, but at the same time I'd rather play on grass than turf," he said. "But it really doesn't matter. We're playing on this pitch."
There used to be a high-quality artificial turf pitch at Olympic Stadium: The Canadian Soccer Association installed a FIFA-approved two-star surface with padding for the 2015 Women's World Cup.
But that surface was later moved to the Impact's training centre. In its place, a surface bought by the Impact in 2013 was put down at Olympic Stadium.
"The overall quality is not to the new standard of some of the field turf," Vanney said previously about the Big O's pitch. "It still has been worn down quite a bit, and I think it has spots that are a little unique."
Both teams are expecting an atmosphere that will be every bit as intense as what players experience in NHL playoff games between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Outside of the CFL, this is the first major playoff series between Montreal and Toronto teams since 1979, when the Canadiens swept the Maple Leafs in the best-of-seven NHL quarter-finals.
"You guys don't need me to tell you what Toronto-Montreal is all about," Bradley said. "There's also the difference culturally between the two cities. There are a lot of layers to [the rivalry]. It's what makes this one very special. The atmosphere in both of these games will be amazing."
Osorio, who grew up in Brampton, Ont., northwest of Toronto, says the series is "huge for the sport and the country. [Soccer] has been growing, slowly growing every year. But this will definitely make that growth stronger."
Thousands of TFC's boisterous fans are expected to make the trip to Montreal. But the Impact expect a crowd of 60,000 or more, so the favoured Reds will undoubtedly face a mostly hostile reception.
"We have a very experienced team," Vanney said. "Our guys have played in environments similar to this. It's motivation one way or another. The energy in the stands – whether they are for you or against you – it heightens your awareness or sharpness. I let them rely on those experiences to guide them and focus on their roles and who they are. They don't need to be anything different than that, whether it's 30,000 or 60,000 here."