The Toronto coach also hopes to have injured winger Tyrese Spicer and midfielders Alonso Coello and Brandon Servania back for the return leg.

“It could be very different (for the second leg) at home,” Herdman said of his lineup. “But at this point, we’re kind of running a very depleted squad for a lot of games.

“We know that the playing field has been levelled considerably before this game.”

Questions also remain on Wednesday regarding the injuries of TFC defender Nicksoen Gomis (shin contusion) and winger Derrick Etienne Jr. (hand).

Forge are without injured striker Terran Campbell while Mexican full-back Daniel Parra is suspended for a yellow card accumulation.

Pacific FC hosts defending champions Vancouver Whitecaps in the other cup semi-final on Wednesday.

Toronto and Forge have both struggled recently.

Toronto (7-13-3) is mired in a nine-game winless streak in the league (0-7-2) and has lost six straight in MLS. That has led to a steady slide down the Eastern Conference standings, with TFC currently sitting ninth, occupying the final wild-card spot for the playoffs.

“As far as (Wednesday’s game), what you did last week, the week before, doesn’t really matter,” Smyrniotis said.

Forge (5-4-3) has won just one of its last five outings (1-2-2) and sits fifth in the eight-team CPL, occupying the final playoff spot. That’s well below the four-time league champion’s usual standing.

Forge has conceded seven goals in its last two games, losing 4-3 at Atlético Ottawa and drawing 3-3 with Vancouver FC. In both games, Forge conceded a late goal, with league-leading Ottawa scoring the winner in the 93rd minute and third-place Vancouver equalizing in the 91st minute.

Herdman sees a real challenge at Forge, however, starting with Hamilton’s artificial turf.

“First, you have to fight the environment,” he said. “They are very strong on their ground. They have good support there.”

“They’ve been together for a long time. They have a good core of players with (Tristan) Borges, (David) Choiniere and (Kyle) Bekker. These players make the team rotate. They’re very good players who understand each other, who understand the coach’s vision. And a coach who has been with the team for five years. It’s rare to see that so often in North America, this kind of consistency. A team that has won a lot with a clear tactical identity.”

The two teams operate on very different principles.

The maximum amount that CPL clubs can spend on their roster is $1,212,500. Toronto’s three designated players — Italians Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Laryea — earn a combined US$22.91 million.

TFC advanced to the semi-finals by blanking Ontario League 1’s Simcoe County Rovers 5-0 in the single-match preliminary round and Quebec League 1’s CS Saint-Laurent 11-1 in the two-legged quarter-final.

Forge beat CPL rivals York United 3-1 in the preliminary round before defeating CF Montreal 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.

Prior to this year, Forge had lost all four of its Cup games against MLS opponents, losing to Toronto on penalties in the pandemic-delayed 2020 final and being ousted by CF Montreal in the 2021 and 2023 semifinals and the 2022 quarterfinals.

Toronto has won the tournament eight times and finished second five times. But it hasn’t lifted the trophy since the 2020 competition.

“There’s excitement when it comes to a cup game… There are two games before the final, which both teams are fighting for at the moment,” Herdman said. “Reaching a cup final will mean a lot to everyone at the club.”

There are many links between the two teams, besides the congested 75-kilometre stretch of motorway that separates their two stadiums.

Bekker and forward Jordan Hamilton both played for Toronto while Borges and forward Kwasi Poku spent time in Toronto’s academy.

The winner of the Canadian Championship lifts the Voyageurs Cup, collects $50,000 (from Canada Soccer) and earns a spot at the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the elite club competition in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The Canadian Championship is sponsored by Telus.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press