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HFX Wanderers looking forward to Toronto FC test in Canadian Championship play

HFX Wanderers FC is expecting a crowd for Tuesday’s visit by Toronto FC in Canadian Championship quarterfinal play.

“I think there would be people climbing the trees to see the game,” said HFX coach Stephen Hart. “I think we’ll be sold out.”

Tuesday’s game at Wanderers Grounds marks the beginning of TFC’s chase for an eighth Canadian title. HFX has already started its cup trail, winning 2-0 at League1 Ontario champion Guelph United on May 10 to reach the quarterfinals.

The lure of cup play pitting teams from different soccer strata against each other is worldwide.

“It’s the magic of the cup,” said Hart. “It’s no different from when we played a League1 team the other day in Guelph and now we’re in that position. We’re playing Toronto FC, a team with pedigree. They have won the MLS (Cup) trophy.

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“So yeah, we look forward to these sort of games. Any player that doesn’t look forward to a game like this is lacking some sort of true emotion to be tested, true passion for his ability.”

Read more: Toronto businesses hopeful as stadiums fill up for first time since pandemic

One player wearing his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the Halifax visit is Toronto wingback Jacob Shaffelburg.

The 22-year-old native of Port Williams, N.S., calls the trip to his home province “the coolest thing ever for me.”

“`I haven’t tried to think about it too much.,’ he said after Halifax advanced to the quarterfinals. ”It’ll be one of those surreal moments, of just being able to play in front of my whole family, like grandparents and every one. And old coaches that I’ve had growing up. Pretty much everyone that’s helped me along the way back home through soccer.“

Shaffelburg’s hometown is about an hour north of Halifax.

The one wrinkle is Shaffelburg’s health. He has missed Toronto’s last five games with a lower body injury and TFC coach Bob Bradley, speaking Saturday night, said it was too early to say whether Shaffelburg will be fit enough to play.

Locals will be hoping that Shaffelburg is being saved for the visit home.

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In other quarterfinal play Tuesday, defending CPL champion Pacific FC hosts York United FC. On Wednesday, it’s Forge FC at CF Montreal and the Vancouver Whitecaps at Cavalry FC.

The Toronto-HFX clash features a pair of former national team coaches with Bradley having coached the U.S. and Hart having been in charge of both Canada and Trinidad and Tobago.

Both TFC and HFX are struggling to find form. HFX has won just one of its last six outings (1-3-2) and is coming off a 4-0 loss Friday to Forge while Toronto lost five straight in MLS play prior to rallying for a 2-2 tie at D.C. United on Saturday.

HFX (2-3-2) stands seventh in the nine-team Canadian Premier League standings, albeit just one point out of fourth place. Toronto (3-7-3) is 13th in MLS’s 14-team Eastern Conference and 26th overall out of 28 clubs.

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Bradley has had to dig deep into his roster in recent days, with Alejandro Pozuelo, Chris Mavinga, Kadin Chung, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Noble Okello and Shaffelburg unavailable for the weekend game in Washington, D.C. Toronto’s starting 11 that day featured seven Canadians including four 19-year-olds.

“We’re not loaded with all sorts of options at the moment,” Bradley said after the D.C. game. “So we’ve got to recover quickly. We’ll assess where we are with each guy.

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“The Canadian championships are an important part of the history of the club. And so we take it seriously ? The players know that. I don’t have to tell them. They’ve done it before”

Toronto hosts the Chicago Fire on Saturday while HFX doesn’t play again until June 4 when York United visits.

Toronto has only played CPL opposition twice before, beating York United 4-0 and Pacific FC 2-1 en route to last year’s Canadian Championship final where it lost 1-0 to CF Montreal.

HFX is missing a big piece in Brazilian striker Joao Morelli, the 2021 CPL Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner who is out for the season after injuring his anterior cruciate ligament in an April 16 loss to Atletico Ottawa.

Bradley can count on a detailed scouting report from assistant coach Paul Stalteri, the former Canadian international who joined his staff from York United.

“Paul’s an important part of the staff every week but when we play against CPL teams he’s even more important,” Bradley said of Stalteri, who won 84 caps for Canada.

Read more: Toronto FC, Whitecaps to meet in Vancouver, both looking to end losing streaks

Hart says the recent loss to Forge doesn’t define his team “in any way.”

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“That game’s not coming back,” said Hart. “So the only thing can do with games like that is to learn some lessons, take something out of it and make sure you don’t have such bad moments of concentration.”

“For me it’s one of those games you don’t forget, you will never forget,” he added. “But you just have to get on with the next game and move on.”

Bradley won the U.S. Open Cup with the Chicago Fire in 1998 and 2000 and was runner-up in 2003 with the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls). He speaks fondly of his cup experiences in Norway with Stabaek, including one early-round match in the Arctic Circle near Senja, some 1,000 kilometres northeast of Olso.

“You see people come out in a small stadium and it’s their chance to see a team from the top division,” said Bradley, who will be making his first trip to Nova Scotia. “That part of football is special.”

TFC is slated to meet Forge on June 4 in the final of the pandemic-delayed 2021 Canadian Championship at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field.

MLS teams are 6-2-0 against CPL teams in the Canadian Championships with the Vancouver Whitecaps losing 2-1 on aggregate to Cavalry FC in a two-game third-qualifying round tie in 2019 and 4-3 to Pacific FC in the 2021 preliminary round.

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The Canadian Championship winner lifts the Voyageurs Cup and qualifies for the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, the elite club competition in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

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