TORONTO – The 2019 MLS regular season comes to an end on Sunday afternoon.
Across the league, all 24 teams are in action as 12 matches kickoff simultaneously on Decision Day to determine the final standings before the MLS Cup Playoffs get underway later this month.
In their slice of the madness, Toronto FC will be hosting Trillium Cup foes Columbus Crew SC at BMO Field.
“We want to win,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley on Friday. “We want to go into the playoffs off the back of a really strong performance at home, in front of our fans.”
“We know that positioning is important,” he continued. “We hope that results go our way and we can be playing the first playoff game at home, but regardless, you want to finish the season off in a strong way, feel like you’re going into the playoffs with some real momentum.”
Toronto has already clinched a post-season berth, but with spots four through seven separated by just four points the final order is yet to be determined. Toronto can finish anywhere from fourth, earning a home playoff date, to seventh and a trip to the second-highest seed in the conference come the first round.
“At this point, it’s not in our control,” said Greg Vanney. “We want to win on the weekend, have a good performance, one that gives us a good clear mindset going into it.”
“We’re playing for home field, optimistic there might be a way we can get it,” he added. “But we still have to have the right mindset to go on the road and get the results we need wherever we go.
For the last month or so, the possible permutations have all been analyzed and considered. Sunday, finally, the path becomes clear.
“Scenarios go on in your head, you think what’s the best,” allowed Jonathan Osorio. “It doesn’t matter for us. We want to win every game and we play who we play. To be the champion, you have to beat the best, whether you face them in the first round or the final, it doesn’t really matter in the end.”
Jozy Altidore isn’t concerned either.
“I’m not really worried about scenarios, just trying to go out Sunday, win the game, and end the regular season on a good note,” said the striker. “It would be great to get [a home match], but I don’t think it matters.”
“The East is open,” Altidore added. “We went to NYCFC could have won, 50-50 game. We’ve had great success against Atlanta, Philly. There is no team that screams out that it’s dreadful to go there. It’s not going to be easy, you prefer to play at home, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.”
Whether at home or on the road, it will not be table position that ultimately determines success on the field.
“Fourth, fifth or seventh, it doesn’t matter,” stressed Altidore. “The most important thing for us is having the right mentality, the right mannerism Sunday night for what it’s like in the playoffs. If you switch off for a play in the playoffs, there’s no two games, you go home. Just getting those type of attitudes, body language, and all those things ready for the playoffs.”
As such, TFC are viewing Sunday as a dress rehearsal.
“We’re treating it like a playoff game, getting ready for the playoffs,” said Osorio. “This is where games get a lot more intense, a lot more tight. We’re ready for that.”
With the post-season format switching from two-legged series to one-off knockout games, this year’s run to the MLS Cup takes on a different flavour.
“This is our final preparation game for the playoffs,” began Vanney. “Some of things that I think we’re going to need, in terms of mindset playing in this new format. It’s a trial run, get our minds shifted around this concept of one-off games and how we want to approach that – decisions, risk-reward – some of the things that are really important in these settings.”
With the stakes raised, Vanney pointed to a couple of differences he wants to see from his side come Sunday: “Not being so ideological, being a bit more pragmatic, putting your foot through a ball instead of playing your way out of something.”
“It’s not an easy shift, but something we have to be more attentive of,” he continued. “Another example is free-kicks: don’t put the ball down and just play unless we know that guy and the next guy has an out. If we put it in play and we’re not quite ready, we put ourselves in harm’s way unnecessarily.”
“One goal can be the difference in a lot of these games – I think it will be,” Vanney concluded. “It’s just being slightly sharper in little things like that can make a big difference.”
Unbeaten in nine league matches, Toronto are looking to carry that momentum into Sunday and beyond.
“It’s a game we should win, go with the idea to win,” urged Altidore. “The onus is on us – at home, going into the playoffs – to set the right tone early.”
In Columbus, though already eliminated from post-season contention, Toronto are facing a team in similarly good form. Caleb Porter has the Crew unbeaten in five themselves, alternating wins and losses with the winds from a solid 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union last weekend in their sails.
The two sides played out a 2-2 draw in Columbus earlier this season with Osorio and Altidore scoring either side of a pair of goals from Pedro Santos and David Accam.
That match was the first between former TFC General Manager/current Crew President Tim Bezbatchenko. Sunday will see him back at BMO Field for the first time since his departure in the off-season.
There will be time for niceties.
“Always,” smiled Vanney. “Even there it was great to see him and his wife. I don’t know if I’ll see him before the game or after, but for sure – I catch up with him from time to time to see how his project is going there – I look forward to seeing him again.”
Given all the uncertainty in Ohio – ownership, possible relocation, new coach – Vanney figured: “They always had a really difficult task this season.”
“Over the course of the season they’ve stabilized,” he continued. “They’ve been unfortunate... probably played better than their record suggests, probably should be in the playoff hunt.”
“They’ve found a pretty good stability and now they’ll have an off-season to tighten up in the direction they want to go. And they have the excitement of a new stadium being developed, a lot of things that are going to invigorate that club,” Vanney added. “They’re moving in the right direction.”
The last two matches between the clubs have ended in draws, while Columbus took a 2-0 win in their most recent visit to BMO Field, early in 2018.
It was a 5-0 thrashing that TFC laid on the Crew in 2017 that proved a catalyst in that treble-winning campaign. With the playoffs around the corner, Toronto feel that once again they are rounding into form at the right time.
“It’s the sign of a good team,” said Altidore of their recent surge. “Everybody around the league expected: when is TFC going to get going? Good teams they prove that, show you their quality by getting going.”
“We all stepped up and answered that bell because over the past nine weeks I don’t think there’s been a team much better than we have been, in terms of the results,” he added. “Also just the play: the way we played at LAFC, spurts in Chicago. You have to take that and be happy with it, but now it’s playoff time.”
“We feel good. There’s always room for improvement though,” reminded Bradley. “We continue to get better every week; we all feel like we’re just scratching the surface for what there can be. It’s been a good stretch for us, but nobody is sitting around feeling like we’ve reached our peak, not even close.”
“I’ve said all year: the biggest games are still coming,” he added. “We want to have a group that, when those big games come, is at its best.”