A record-setting regular season in its rear-view mirror, Toronto FC’s sights are now set firmly on the MLS Cup.
For top-seeded Toronto (20-5-9), Monday’s visit to Red Bull Arena is the first step of hopefully a five-game playoff journey that will culminate Dec. 9 in the championship decider at BMO Field. First up are the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls (14-12-8) in the two-legged Eastern Conference semifinal.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney has called his team the best in Major League Soccer history and TFC has the numbers to back him up with a league-record 69 points — one better than the 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy team featuring Vanney in the backline.
Now it’s time to finish the job.
“Our biggest goal this season is the one that’s still in front of us,” Vanney said Sunday prior to boarding the team charter. “We all recognize it’s the start really of a new season. It’s a new competition. And it’s a challenging one because any time you get in these Cup competitions, one mistake here or there, one missed opportunity can change the course of it quickly.
“So we know it’s time to execute. Results are of the utmost importance and every moment of the game is an important one.”
Toronto fell just short last season, losing via penalty shootout to visiting Seattle in the championship game. The Sounders played to a scoreless draw in Vancouver on Sunday night in the team’s quest for back-to-back titles.
Vanney says his team is ready to go one better.
“The concentration, the focus, intensity from our guys has gone up to another level this week. I think they understand after last year’s experiences what the playoffs really look like,” he said. “We know when we play a Red Bulls team that it’s going to be engaging, it’s going to be fast and it requires you to be mindful of every moment of the game.”
Big names, new additions key for TFC
The additions of Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez and French defender Chris Mavinga have elevated Toronto’s game to a new level this season. Alex Bono has taken over in goal, an excellent shot-stopper and mobile ‘keeper whose occasional gaffes rarely lead to disaster.
The addition of Victor Vazquez, left, has helped solidify Toronto FC’s midfield. (Jon Blacker/Canadian Press)
Captain Michael Bradley and star strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are the straws that stir the drink. Bradley is the midfield fulcrum. Up front, a healthy Giovinco has looked in the mood recently while Altidore continues to be a bull in an opposition china shop.
Marky Delgado has become a key cog in the midfield, keeping the ball moving.
Vanney’s team is bidding to become the seventh winner of the Supporters’ Shield — symbolic of the best regular-season record — to claim the MLS Cup since the league’s inaugural season in 1996. Toronto, which also won the Voyageurs Cup this year as Canadian champions, is also vying to become the first MLS team to capture three major honours in a single season (whether MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and domestic and/or championship).
Twelve previous franchises stalled at two honours.
Red Bulls primed to charge
New York advanced by upsetting third-seeded Chicago 4-0 in a knockout game on the road. The Red Bulls may have entered the playoffs the hard way in 2017 but they are no strangers to the post-season, making their eighth straight appearance since 2010.
The two teams tied 1-1 at Red Bull Arena in May with Toronto winning 4-2 at home in September thanks to a Justin Morrow hat trick. Red Bulls stars Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan saw limited action off the bench that day.
Wright-Phillips is on 99 goals in all competitions, with nine of those strikes coming against Toronto in just 11 games.
‘Boxing match’ expected in 1st leg
In booking its playoff ticket with six weeks remaining, Toronto matched the fastest qualification for the post-season since 2006, joining five other teams in the record book.
Toronto set franchise records for goals scored (74), shutouts (13), home wins (13), home points (42), road victories (7), road points (27) and fewest goals conceded (37).
Toronto’s 20 wins tied the 2014 Seattle Sounders for the most in the non-shootout era, since 2000.
But all those numbers will be of little comfort should Toronto falter now.
“I don’t think we’re thinking about any records that we’ve broken,” said veteran defender Drew Moor. “We know we had a very good season. We know we have a very good team and very good players. But this is about the gritty part of the season.”
The pretty play may go out the window, he suggested.
“It’s a boxing match at first many times early in playoff games. If we can establish our physicality, withstand any storm that New York’s going to throw at us then when the soccer does come out, we feel we’re the better team and that we’re well prepared for that.
“But the regular season’s behind us and we’ve got a bunch of players in there that remember that transition going into the playoffs last year and that’s something to draw from.”
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CBC | Soccer News