Saturday is the day the MLS Cup Playoffs return to BMO Field. It's been more than 22 months since Toronto FC last hosted a home playoff game. It just happens to be the night TFC hoisted the MLS Cup in 2017. With it being almost two years in the making, Saturday is building up to another special night, under the lights of BMO (6pm ET v. DC United).
As we look ahead this week, it's a good time to take a look back as well, to what made Toronto FC a playoff team with home field advantage over the regular season. Nothing came easy for the team this season. It was a season of great change, on and off the field. It took time and patience to put a complete squad together, but when it did, this rebuild on the fly has taken shape of an MLS Cup contender. Early adversity with exits, and injury and Gold Cup interference gave opportunity to squad players, who have now emerged as key contributors in the team. And once Head Coach Greg Vanney was given time with his full squad after the Gold Cup in July, the team has been among, if not, the most difficult team to beat in MLS.
A 10-game unbeaten run to finish the season (the second longest unbeaten streak on the MLS season) has given Toronto a chance to take care of business at a place they have only ever lost once in 90 minutes of playoff soccer in club history. That loss came back in 2017, 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls; a scoreline that was good enough to advance after a first leg away victory. It's a single-game elimination format this time around, so home field advantage will play a role on the night.
There were plenty of high's and low's over the season, all contributing to a battle-tested group that's ready to embark on a playoff run full of promise and positivity. Here are some of the numbers, stats and influences that helped lead Toronto FC back to the playoffs.
By The Numbers
12 - Most Goals (Alejandro Pozuelo)
12 - Most Assists (Pozuelo)
32 - Most Games Played (Nick DeLeon)
29 - Most Starts (Marky Delgado)
2554 - Most Minutes Played: (Delgado)
4 - Jozy Altidore consecutive game goal streaks (accomplished twice)
10 - Number of Pozuelo goals scored at home
15 - Players with a goal scored
27 - Players with MLS minutes
25 - Players with MLS starts
13 - New Players added from the 2018 squad
7 - Players Acquired after the start of the regular season
2 - Debut Goals (DeLeon, Pozuelo)
53.3% Possession - 5th best in MLS
85.3% Pass Completion - 1st in MLS
57 Goals Scored - 7th most in MLS
15 Goals Scored in the Final 15 Minutes of games - t1 (Galaxy, LAFC)
25,048 Average Attendance - 5th in MLS
23 - Games decided by one-goal or less
24 - Number of times TFC players named to MLS Team of the Week
1 - MLS Player of the Week (Pozuelo in Week 8)
3 - TFC players scoring MLS Goal of the Week
Auro Jr. - Named to Opta Team of the Year
Pozuelo - Finalist for MLS Newcomer of the Year
Biggest Away win: 5-1 at FC Cincinnati (ties 4-0 win at LA Galaxy in 2017)
Most goals scored in an MLS game: 5 at FC Cincinnati (tied the record)
Most shots in a game without a goal: 35 vs. DC United (MLS record)
200 Games Club: Justin Morrow, Greg Vanney
100 Games Club: Alex Bono
Inside the 10-game Unbeaten Streak
4w, 6d - Record over the unbeaten streak
4 - Times TFC came from behind to earn points
6 - Games Away from home
3 - Games against playoff teams
1 - Goals conceded in 1st half of games
11 - Different TFC goal scorers
19 - Goals For
12 - Goals Against
1 - Clean Sheet
11 - longest unbeaten streak in club history (2017)
Record year-by-year under Vanney
2019 - 13-10-11: 50 pts, 57 gf, 52 ga, +5 (4th in Conference)
2018 - 10-18-6: 36 pts, 59 gf, 64 ga, -5 (9th in Conference)
2017 - 20-5-9: 69 pts, 74 gf, 37 gd, +37 (1st in Conference)
2016 - 14-9-11: 53 pts, 51 gf, 39 ga, +12 (3rd in Conference)
2015 - 15-15-4: 49 pts, 58 gf, 58 ga, 0 (6th in Conference)
In the Insider’s Eyes
Most Improved Player:
Tsubasa Endoh - Technically Endoh wasn't a first-team player last year. But he finished 2018 under the Toronto FC umbrella playing for TFCII, so the player should apply for consideration. Endoh didn't play a minute over the first 16 games of the season, and now, has worked his way into regular starting XI contention with a playoff team. In his first TFC first-team appearance since July 22, 2017, Endoh scored in the first minute of a dramatic 3-2 home win over Atlanta. After not playing to start the season, Endoh played in 13 of the final 18 games, starting in 10 of them, scoring three goals and assisting on two others. He was a key contributor of the Canadian Championship run as well, making himself a reliable, hard-working attacking option for Vanney. The player has grown by leaps and bounds, both physically and mentally.
Most Surprising Player:
Richie Layrea - It was difficult what to make of Laryea during the pre-season. The local product was looking for a fresh start in Toronto after failing to catch on in Orlando. He came to the club as a central-midfield player, and played that position for much of the pre-season. After not signing his first-team contract until March 21, the transformation was well under-way converting the 24 year old into a right-back. Laryea has done so seamlessly. Although still learning the position, his brave running forward in attack, his determination defensively, and tireless workrate has made him a fan favourite. Laryea played 20 MLS games, scoring a goal and assisting two others. His standout play caught the eye of the Canadian Men's National team, and the player is now the first-choice right-back of John Herdman. It's been a remarkable season for Laryea with the best still to come.
Omar Gonzalez - This is a tough one. The argument can easily be made the nod should go to Pozuelo or Bradley; both having played more games and putting up impressive numbers over the course of the season. But I'll go with Gonzalez based upon what his arrival has meant to the team. The team needed a rock at the back, and that stability and presence has been provided by Omar. The team form tells the story about how important he has been to team success:
With Gonzalez: 7-1-6 record for 27 points, and 16 goals against in 14 games
Without Gonzalez: 6-5-9 record for 23 points, and 36 goals against in 20 games
That is an incredible turnaround in defensive sharpness and overall team form. Gonzalez doesn't only bring an aerial presence, a big defensive body and leadership at the back, but he also makes other players around him better. Those are the characteristics of a team MVP. On a season the squad is more a sum of their parts than the individual pieces, Gonzalez provided the extra bit of quality required to turn this team into a contender.
Friday March 29 - 4-0 win over NYCFC - It was the debut of all debuts as Pozuelo put on a show at BMO. A Panenka penalty and a chip over the head of Sean Johnson highlighted a spectacular showing and a comprehensive home victory over the first place team in the Eastern Conference. Pozuelo was the star, living up to his lofty billing after a protracted transfer and having just landed in Toronto earlier that week. It was the type of performance needed after losing star players in the off-season and wondering what would come next. Pozuelo's goals were watched by millions on the @FIFA twitter feed, and the Spaniard admitted after the game he told President Bill Manning he would try the Panenka if given the opportunity while the two were out to dinner in the days prior. It was a night, as good as the get at BMO Field and a performance that won't be soon forgotten.
Saturday August 24 - 2-1 win over Montreal - There was no question Toronto FC's season was in the balance. It was a must-win game for TFC, sitting outside of the playoff positions, needed to catch their Canadian rivals. It was a game Vanney decided to start Pozuelo on the bench. After a goalless first half, the Impact took the lead out of nowhere as Bojan Krkic beat Quentin Westberg with a wonderful strike from distance. A loss would have been a disaster, and a playoff spot would have been considered a reach with any kind of setback. Pozuelo's introduction at the half was a good one, and Toronto FC started to dominate the game, despite being down. Two timely second half goals by Marky Delgado and Justin Morrow, the first goals of the season for each, helped save the game and TFC's season. It was a gusty performance, coming from behind when it mattered the most. The patience and perseverance were admirable, and stands out as the turning point of the season.