TORONTO – It’s game-time.
Toronto FC return to the pitch on Wednesday night when they face NYCFC at Citi Field in the Eastern Conference Semifinals as the MLS Cup Playoffs look to pick up the action after a furious Round One.
Toronto surpassed the first hurdle of the post-season on Saturday night with a 5-1 win over D.C. United, sending Wayne Rooney and company into the off-season early with a goal-explosion in the first half of extra time, hitting the back of the net four times in 13 minutes.
They will look to carry that momentum into New York City with a spot in the Conference Final on the line.
“We feel amazing. We feel very good after this game. We know the importance of the playoffs, so now we need to continue,” said Alejandro Pozuelo on Monday. “If we win Saturday and lose Wednesday, [it’s] for nothing. We need to go, push it, and win.”
NYCFC topped the Eastern Conference this season, earning themselves a bye to this stage of the playoffs, but TFC found good success over Dome Torrent’s side, winning the first meeting 4-0 at home in March and settling for a 1-1 draw at Yankee Stadium in September.
Pozuelo was a central figure in both, bagging a debut brace in the first and scoring a penalty kick in the second. With three goals and an assist in two matches it was a penalty saved, one that would have seen Toronto win the second encounter, that first came to mind for the attacking midfielder when asked.
The past, however, goes out the window in these one-off matches.
“It’s going to be a third game, a different game,” said Quentin Westberg. “The home game against them was one of our best, the game there was a hard 15-20 minutes and then we did really well. We’ll take whatever we can out of these two.”
Though held to just a single goal in the two matches against Toronto, NYCFC have been one of the more dangerous attacking teams in MLS. Their 63 goals trails only LAFC in offensive output over the 34 matches of the regular season.
With Heber (15), Alexandru Mitrita (12), and Valentin Castellanos (11) all scoring double-digit goals and Maxi Morales (20) leading the league in assists, it is incumbent on TFC to keep them at bay.
“We have to defend well, find the right ways to disrupt their rhythm,” said Greg Vanney. “They’re a team that really like to have the ball and move you around. They’ll have different rotations, move different guys into areas of the field, you don’t want to get pulled apart.”
All while still finding their chances to do damage at the other end.
“You’ve got to execute on the road,” stressed Vanney of finding success in the post-season. “Every game the road team have chances, sometimes not as many as the opposition, but if you defend well you’re going to get your chances in these playoff games. You’ve got to execute.”
“LA [Galaxy] was able to do it; there’s a formula,” he continued, pointing to the only away team to progress from the first round. “In order to be a championship team, you’ve got to defend well. We were one play away the other night from finishing it off in regulation. We have a good formula. We know their team, we’re confident in what we can do. We’ve just got to concentrate and execute.”
In big games, big players need to step-up.
Though limited officially to a single assist in the romp over D.C., Pozuelo was a force in the middle of the pitch. He will be looked to again on Wednesday; there is something about these games that particularly suits his gifts.
“When the game is moving fast and the ball is moving fast – and he is moving the ball fast – our team is better,” said Vanney of Pozuelo’s impact. “He was getting the ball, getting it to people, there was a lot of good interactions with him and he was able to find some spaces. We were able to maintain some shape, but allow him some freedom to move and connect.”
“He does a great job, in the times we use him as that striker, to help us defensively, create clear scenarios for the guys behind him, to help us recover the ball. When he is in that spot, he is hyper-engaged,” continued Vanney. “These are big moments. He understands what the playoffs are like, they have that in Belgium, he recognizes this is a critical part of the season. He looks excited, motivated, connected with the group and ready to go.”
One wrinkle is that rather than Yankee Stadium, a familiar scene for wild games between these two over the years, this one will be held at Citi Field, though the miniature pitch will be the same.
“Not a lot of sprints to do, no more distance to cover, so for me it’s good,” quipped Chris Mavinga of the decreased yardage. “It will be faster than normal because you have no space, you have to think and read the game more quickly than usual. We have to live with this. We know it.”
No matter where the game is played, no matter the opponent, the playoffs are something else.
“It’s special, different,” smiled Westberg. “You don’t really know what to expect – you never know what to expect. It’s almost like a cup, you’re getting closer and closer.”
“From what I’ve experienced in Europe [in] cups you have great games and then it’s a whole new one afterwards. It’s exciting. Let’s just enjoy it and make the most of it,” he added. “We have great depth, a lot of different profiles, we can adapt to any team, any format, and any stadium. The focus is on us and we’re ready.”
Said Mavinga: “I love the playoff games. The atmosphere, the opponent, they’re more difficult to play against. You take your level higher and this is why I love.”
History may be against the road team in such circumstances, but the future is yet to be written.
“I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the statistics, when you say, ‘Traditionally, it’s been a certain way,’” dismissed Michael Bradley. “I can only draw on the experiences that we’ve had.”
“Whether it’s single-elimination, home-and-away, first game at home, second game at home, whatever it is, we have the experience of playing on a lot of big days over the last few years. We’ve dealt with all different circumstances: games where we’ve had to come from behind, games where we’ve been ahead, all different scenarios,” continued the captain. “On more days than not we’ve managed to find the right way. We’ll have to do the same thing [Wednesday] night.”