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Montreal Impact eager to face Toronto FC before big crowd

Montreal Impact head coach Mauro Biello, right, says facing Toronto FC in the Eastern final is a ‘special’ moment for his team.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Ticket sales for the MLS Eastern Conference final are creeping toward the 60,000 mark and the Montreal Impact are starting to get excited.

The opening match of the two-game, total-goals series on Nov. 22 in the domed Olympic Stadium has become a hot ticket as the Impact prepare to face rival Toronto FC in a series that will determine which of the Canadian franchises reaches the MLS Cup final for the first time. The return leg is Nov. 30 in Toronto.

"Everybody's ecstatic on my team," Impact coach Mauro Biello said Tuesday. "It means a lot to them to have 60,000 fans come out.

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"It's going to be big. They know what it represents. They know we're playing Toronto. That's going to lead into my message this week — making people understand that there are certain moments in a career that don't always come around and that this is special."

The teams are itching to get at each other.

It was back on Nov. 6 that they each won a conference semi-final series for the first time, with Montreal upsetting the first-place New York Red Bulls and Toronto routing second-place New York City FC. Now they're slogging through a 16-day gap between games caused mainly by one of FIFA's regular breaks for international matches.

So far, the Impact have held loose practices centred on keeping fit to fill the time, but it picked up somewhat Tuesday with an intrasquad game. They have Wednesday off and then move into Olympic Stadium to start getting used to playing on artificial turf.

"It's a challenge," Biello said. "You see some players haven't really revved it up yet because we still have six or seven days before the game, but it's still important to get the rhythm to play on a big field and make longer runs and close down space from a bit further distance.

"These are things we need to put in their legs. As we get closer to the game, we'll start to work on what we may face against Toronto."

The Impact did not have their full squad on hand. Defenders Laurent Ciman and Ambroise Oyongo returned from international duty but were recovering from jet lag, while Johan Venegas had a World Cup qualifying game Tuesday for Costa Rica against the United States, whose side includes TFC players Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

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But stars such as fully fit-looking striker Didier Drogba, midfielder Ignacio Piatti and forward Matteo Mancosu got a good workout.

Goalkeeper Evan Bush rated the game as "OK."

"Any time you try an intrasquad game, the intensity isn't where you want it," he said. "I've been on teams for a number of years where the so-called second team beats the first team, I'd say, eight out of 10 times.

"That's normal. Sometimes the starters are taking it easy so they don't get injured. They don't have the same mindset. But, come Thursday at the Big O, we'll have to ramp it up a bit."

Ciman looked to have lost his place on the Belgian team during the European Championship last summer, but he is back to being a starter under new coach Roberto Martinez. The centre-back played in a 1-1 friendly draw against the the Netherlands and in an 8-1 victory over Estonia in World Cup qualifying.

He will be a key figure in trying to contain Toronto scoring and play-making ace Sebastian Giovinco.

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"I watched both games and he did a good job of [confirming] the coaches' confidence in him," Biello said of Ciman. "Playing with that confidence is only going to help him here, so it's a good thing.

"We had a little panic the other day with Ambroise. I got a call that it was a serious injury, but it wasn't the case. It was just a knock at the end of the game."

Oyongo, the left-back, was stretched off of Cameroon's 1-1 draw with Zambia on Saturday, but he tweeted later "no worries."

The Impact's crowd record is 61,044 at Olympic Stadium, set at the CONCACAF Champions League final game in April, 2015, against Mexico's Club America. They drew 60,860 for a league match against David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy in May, 2012, and 58,860 for their first MLS home game in March, 2012, against the Chicago Fire.

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