Two more Canadian Premier League sides have their chance to lock horns with MLS opposition in this week's Canadian Championship doubleheader, as HFX Wanderers FC host CF Montreal and York United head to BMO Field to play Toronto FC. Since the CPL's birth, we've seen four matchups in this competition between the two leagues, and the MLS sides have never had an easy go of it -- the Vancouver Whitecaps still have yet to beat a CPL team, losing in 2019 to Cavalry FC and last month to Pacific FC. Montreal has fared better, with two-legged wins over York and Cavalry in 2019, but they certainly had to work for those results en route to winning the Voyageurs Cup that year. No CPL side has ever played Toronto yet, so the local derby with York United is sure to be a fun one on Wednesday. With Pacific already knocking out one of the three MLS sides this year, could another CPL outfit join them in that historical canon? Which of the two teams is more likely to produce the upset on Wednesday?'s Benedict Rhodes and Charlie O'Connor-Clarke debate.

RELATED: PREVIEW: HFX Wanderers FC vs CF Montreal -- 2021 Canadian Championship || PREVIEW: Toronto FC vs. York United -- 2021 Canadian Championship

Benedict Rhodes: HFX Wanderers vs. CF Montreal

On their day, HFX Wanderers can pick up a result against anyone. That was evident during their run to the CPL final at the Island Games, but has also been proven at times in 2021. In PEI, the team had a confidence about them that no matter the opposition, they were there to pick up a result. While they would come up just short in their quest for the North Star Shield, HFX picked up important points in the first round -- including wins against FC Edmonton, Atlético Ottawa and Valour FC -- and picked up a huge win over Cavalry FC in the second round to secure their spot in the final. Considering that they finished last in the inaugural 2019 season, finishing second in 2020 was proof of the team's ability to get the best out of their players and step up in big moments. Those are exactly the characteristics they'll need on Wednesday night, and for the rest of the season if they're to make the playoffs in the CPL. Wanderers star Joao Morelli is also hitting his stride at the moment, currently leading the CPL in goals and shots. His 11 CPL goals are four more than anyone else in the league. He's scored a few goals from the penalty spot, including two in one match against York United recently. He's clinical from 12 yards out, but certainly far from a one-dimensional player. With Akeem Garcia struggling to find his Golden Boot-winning form from 2020, and currently out with an injury, Morelli has had to step up and be the focal point this season. An intelligent runner to find space for himself, and not afraid to pull the trigger to get shots on goal, Morelli has stepped up to lead the line for HFX. He should be a handful for the Montreal defenders, as he's been for CPL defenders all year long. Montreal have also been strongly challenged by two CPL sides before -- they nearly lost 2-1 at York Lions Stadium in 2019, but scored a late penalty to tie the match in stoppage time, and won the second leg 1-0 over the Nine Stripes at Stade Saputo in the return leg. York definitely showed signs of beating them, but fell just short. The Impact, as CF Montreal were then known, played Cavalry FC in the semifinal -- the same Cavs side that proved they can beat MLS opposition in the previous round with a famous victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps. Montreal won that tie 3-1 on aggregate, but the Cavs held them close. Like with Pacific FC against the Vancouver Whitecaps, and York United against Toronto FC (as you'll see in a moment), there are a number of Wanderers players with ties to CF Montreal -- players who will want to pick up a big result against their former club. No less than seven players on HFX's roster spent time with the then-Montreal Impact Academy, including Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, who made a handful of appearances for the first team as well. As well as being the underdogs with nothing to lose on Wednesday, they'll have extra motivation to try and grind out a result at home in front of their fantastic fans at Wanderers Grounds.

Charlie O'Connor-Clarke: York United vs. Toronto FC

In the same way that Pacific FC wanted a chance to play the Vancouver Whitecaps effectively from the beginning of the club’s history, so too have York United wanted a crack at the biggest club in the area. Toronto FC have won the Voyageurs Cup seven times — once, in 2009, with York boss Jimmy Brennan wearing their captain’s armband. A lot of the locally-raised York players either spent time in TFC’s academy, or (especially for the younger ones) grew up a fan of the team, attending matches at BMO Field. As the youngest team in the CPL, at least a handful of York players from the Toronto area are surely ecstatic to have this opportunity to demonstrate their own talents against TFC -- maybe with a view to generating some interest? It's no secret that plenty of these players would love to move to a higher level. All that, on its own, is enough to motivate this York team for arguably the biggest game they’ve played yet. Then, there’s the on-pitch matchup itself. There’s no denying this has been a difficult season for TFC, who are last place in MLS with just four wins (although one of them was on Saturday). They’ve been a little better in the seven games they’ve played at BMO Field — one win, four draws, and two defeats — but nonetheless they haven’t been nearly as strong as they have in recent years, despite having plenty of talented players. Even if their big-money Designated Players are unavailable due to injury, TFC have the likes of Richie Laryea, Jonathan Osorio, and Michael Bradley who will all be up for this game. Jimmy Brennan and co. have acknowledged that the Canadian Championship is TFC’s primary focus now, with the MLS playoff race realistically over for them. That said, if there’s ever a time for a CPL team to beat them, it’s probably now. Toronto are the only Canadian MLS side that hasn’t yet faced CPL opposition, so they might not quite know what to expect from York United. Much of York’s success in the CPL this season has come from their being a little more direct with the ball than they had been in other seasons. Players along the flanks like Max Ferrari and Diyaeddine Abzi have been a nightmare for opposing backlines to deal with, because they’ll be bearing down on goal before the opponent has a chance to settle into a defensive shape thanks to quick forward passes from midfield. Traditionally, that sort of direct, punishing transitional play has been a hallmark of upsets in cup competitions — don’t expect to control possession against a higher-level side, but win your battles and make good use of opportunities and you’ve got a shot. York’s players will definitely have seen how Pacific handled the Whitecaps last month, by essentially outworking them, and they will be encouraged by seeing that example set. Heading into this game, there’s no pressure on the CPL outfit — nerves and excitement, sure, but no pressure. For TFC, there’s a lot (more so than there is for CF Montreal, who remain in the playoff hunt); a loss at home to York would be a crushing result for them to add further disappointment to an already frustrating season. The Reds always consider it a disappointment when they don't lift the Voyageurs Cup, but it's an even higher priority this year. Confidence is running high in this young, motivated York team, though. If they manage to come out of the gates with energy — as Pacific did — and perhaps score the first goal, they might be able to put doubt in the minds of a TFC side who have conceded early goals all too often this year.

Continue reading...