TORONTO – The international break is over. Bring on the playoffs.
The MLS Cup Playoffs kickoff on Saturday when Toronto FC welcome D.C. United to BMO Field.
After the lengthy, 34-game grind that is the regular season, MLS paused for almost two weeks, giving every side a chance to both get healthy and prepare for the upcoming action.
For TFC, the focus was split across two facets: staying sharp and preparing for D.C.
“A mix,” began Vanney. “Keeping our fitness level and sharpness level up, a lot of playing and competing. At the same time we still have enough guys here in our core group that we can approach some things tactically, get everybody to understand what our expectations are.”
“We’re also looking to get into a few details that maybe you don’t get in a short week,” he added. “[Those] become even more important in a game where the margins are thin.”
Having finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, Toronto has their sights set, as ever, on loftier goals now that the knockout portion of the calendar has arrived.
“Every year the goal is to compete for a championship,” stated Vanney. “Every season has its own rollercoaster ride that you have to deal with, attack in different ways.”
“This year we had our own special things to manage, but we felt like once we could get the positions filled, get the personalities on the field, that we could compete with anybody,” explained the coach. “Winning a championship with the way they have it setup now is going to be tough for anybody. The margins are so fine with a one-and-out. You don’t get the second game to try to recover.”
“It’s going to be a real cup competition,” Vanney added. “Whereas before when you have the home-and-away, you have a better chance of the top team coming out with the result. This time, we’ll see.”
NYCFC topped the East, earning themselves a first-round bye, but for the most part the conference is wide open.
“There are some good teams, a lot of teams that can beat each other. The margins are fine. The execution of one play here or there, some details here or there, are the difference in getting to where you want to go,” laid out Vanney. “We can get results in any stadium. The confidence in the group is high, the clarity is there; those things are important when you come down the stretch. Over the history of the league the last ten games is a pretty good predictor of how teams will do in the playoffs. But that was the in the two-game series, now we’re in a one-off.”
How that format change plays out over the coming weeks will be fascinating.
Previously, aside from the one-match knockout round and the MLS Cup itself, every playoff series was a two-legged affair. Now, they are all one-off, win-or-out contests.
That necessitates a change of approach.
“In a two-game series, road goals play a factor, but the margins are broader,” weighed Vanney. “A couple years ago when we went to Montreal and we got down three goals right away, you don’t come back from that in one game series, you need two games.”
“You’ve got to manage risk-reward better, be wiser in how you close out games, things like that,” he added. “You just have to be sharper. Every second matters, there are a lot of little things you have to be a lot more focused on when you’re in a one-game and you’re done if you don’t get a result. Also, penalty kicks are something we’ve got to address.”
TFC have been practising those as well.
Unbeaten through through those predictive final ten matches of the season, Toronto are feeling good with where they stand ahead of D.C.’s visit, no matter the altered pathway.
“It makes for an exciting setup, sets up for some upsets,” forecast Vanney. “We played a good number of games in difficult places on the road during the last ten games. We had a tough schedule, felt like we bonded as a group, went through some really difficult back-to-back types of games, some travel, different things, and through all of it we remained steady and in position to win a lot of them. We’re happy with where we’re at.”