TORONTO – When two of the league's best playmakers go toe-to-toe, which one will pass their side to victory?
As Toronto FC prepare to kick off the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs on Monday against the New York Red Bulls, they know one of the keys will be shutting down the opponent’s attacking weapons.
New York's potent offense was on display in their 4-0 Knockout Round win against the Chicago Fire. Two quick goals got them off to a lightning start; two more as the Fire opened up in search of one of their own finished off the contest.
Four different players scored on the night; five different players registered assists. New York, with eleven different goal-scorers this season, has a good variety to their attack. Daniel Royer has been a solid addition, Felipe has chipped in, Gonzalo Veron is dangerous, as TFC saw in the last encounter, while the contingent of young players in the squad – Alex Muyl, Tyler Adams, and Sean Davis – have all contributed this season.
But two players stand above the rest: Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan.
Wright-Phillips bagged 17 goals this season; Kljestan only had two, but his 17 assists saw him crowned assist king for the second-straight year.
Shutting them down, limiting their opportunities, will be a primary focus for TFC.
“It's one thing to say it and one thing to do it,” said Jason Hernandez. “Every team is looking to key in on Wright-Phillips and Kljestan. They are huge pieces of their attack. Teams never can seem to manage doing both.”
“If you can prevent Sacha from getting on the ball, Wright-Phillips is in the box and can pounce on anything. If you lay off Sacha, he'll pick the passes and open the game,” continued Hernandez. “It's a pick your poison; it's going to take a concentrated effort for full 90 minutes, 180 minutes, from our guys to key in on them and make it difficult.”
What Wright-Phillips has done since coming to the league in 2013 is simply marvellous.
Twice winner of the Golden Boot (2016 and 2014, where his 27 goals equalled the all-time record set by Roy Lassiter and tied by Chris Wondolowski), the English striker of a famous footballing family – son of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, brother of Shaun Wright-Phillips, formerly of Manchester City and Chelsea – has scored 86 goals in 139 regular season MLS games. In 13 playoff appearances, he has eight goals. Against TFC, through 11 matches, Wright-Phillips has scored nine.
Kljestan too has relished playing against Toronto. In 12 matches, he has four goals and seven assists.
Both were held off the score-sheet in the last match, coming off the bench in a 4-2 September loss at BMO. No doubt they will be looking to correct that trend come Monday.
Kljestan in particular is a known quantity in Toronto.
“Very good, smart player,” said Michael Bradley of his US national teammate. “He is the guy in their team that gives them football.”
“They [rely] on their mobility, their reactions, their energy, their ability to compete, to press. While Sacha does all those, he's the one that can make a play, football-wise, that is different. He can unlock things,” continued Bradley. “When things are flying around and hectic, he has the eye for a pass that nobody else does.”
“He's a good friend,” added Bradley. “I have a huge amount of respect for the career he has had, for everything he has done for that team. It'll be a big job making sure that we make these two games hard on him. If you can do it, it goes a long way to taking care of things.”
Not only is Kljestan an international teammate of Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Justin Morrow, but his ties to TFC players go way back to his college days at Seton Hall University.
“I was his host on his recruiting trip,” said Hernandez of his first encounter with Kljestan. “I was the big man on campus, captain of the team, not supposed to be taking around recruits, so I pawned him off on some freshmen. But, lo and behold, he decided to come anyway, helped propel the program in the right direction, won a ton of accolades, made a name for himself in college and hasn't stopped there.”
“We also played together his first two years at Chivas USA, lived together there,” added Hernandez. “I got to watch him from a teenager finding his way to the game to being one of the better midfielders [the US] has produced.”
In three seasons since returning to MLS, Kljestan has racked up an astonishing 51 assists.
However, his 17 this season only narrowly beat out Victor Vazquez for the league's most – Vazquez had one less, but twice as many game-winning assists and scored four times as many goals. When it comes to playmakers, TFC have a pretty good one on their side as well.
Greg Vanney sees similarities between the two: “Neither of them go dribbling around everybody to make plays happen, not sprinting with ball at their feet, though they will run with it. They're passers; have good vision. There are a lot of similarities.”
“Of the guys in the league, [they're] two of the closer, in terms of style and approach,” continued Vanney. “In terms of final pass and details, you can give the edge to one guy or the other – I'm not here to say. They have a similar profile in the way they approach the game.”
And whoever shines most in this series will go a long way towards giving their side the edge.
Interestingly, Vazquez and Kljestan have more in common than numbers and style.
Both excelled in Belgium, playing on opposite sides in one of the country's most fearsome clashes: RSC Anderlecht versus Club Brugge KV, two clubs that regularly vie for trophies.
“I played against him many times when we were playing Anderlecht against Brugge,” said Vazquez. “We were big rivals, but we have a good relationship. He's a good guy. I'm happy for him that he achieved, for the second time in a row, the [league lead] in assists. I was pretty close to him, but finally he took it.”
“Always tough games, it was like Barca-Madrid in Belgium,” recalled Vazquez. “We had some moments that we were fighting against each other, but it's the game, it's football; nothing more than that. I am happy to meet him here again and that he is so doing well.”
“When we meet, play against each other, we talk about Belgium... about here now,” added Vazquez. “He's a nice guy.”
Nice or not, Toronto must be wary of what Kljestan brings to the pitch.
“Somebody you have to keep an eye on for sure,” said Altidore. “You have to be aware of where he is at all times.”