TORONTO – Game night, and it’s a big one.
The last two MLS Cup Champions will meet on Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta as Toronto FC and Atlanta United FC take to the pitch in the Eastern Conference Final.
Having already knocked off the top seed in the East with their win at NYCFC last week, Toronto must now go into the home of the number two side in the conference and do the same.
“People have underestimated us all year, especially this tail end with Jozy [Altidore] and Omar [Gonzalez] out,” said Greg Vanney in the build-up. “We’re very confident in our group and our ability to go anywhere and get a result.”
“It’s a one-off game, that’s how we’re going to approach it, how we’re going to attack it,” he added. “We’ve got ways to put the game on our terms as best we can and make them have to adjust to us.”
Having won MLS Cup in 2018, Atlanta underwent a coaching change in the offseason with Tata Martino replaced by Frank de Boer.
“Good team, very dangerous in the attack,” summed up Vanney. “They’ve gone through a little bit of a reforming of some of their identity with a new coach, bringing more of a defensive mindset to the group seemed to be his initial plan. They took some early losses.”
“But as the season has grown, you still see a lot of the characteristics of the team that they were: when spaces open up and they build some speed into their attacks, they’ve got players that can hurt you,” cautioned Vanney. “[Josef] Martinez is running as hard as ever in front of the goal and working to get into those positions. They’ve become stingier defensively.”
“It’s important for us to find the right way to get on top of the game and force them,” he added. “A lot of games they don’t have to play from behind or from a position of deficit, and they’ve been able to maintain confidence and build that through the games. We’ve got to find the way to shutdown all their weapons and get on top of the game.”
Said Michael Bradley: “Defending champions.”
“Frank de Boer has a different idea of football and what makes a team successful than Tata Martino,” he continued. “They’ve had a really good year: they won the [U.S.] Open Cup and now they’re one of four teams left in the playoffs. We have big respect for them, but we also feel like we have a good team as well.”
“We’ve always had good games, always played well against them, and we’re excited to go and play on a big night with a big crowd in what should be a great atmosphere,” added the TFC captain. “It sets up well.”
That both teams can throw multiple looks, whether from the start or with mid-game alterations, makes for an intriguing match-up.
“Both of our shapes, systems are pretty fluid,” compared Vanney. “We have a good sense of what their options are, what we think we might see. At at the same time we want to know and understand how we can create problems for them based on what we see.”
“Soccer is really an if/then kind of thing,” outlined the coach. “The better teams can adapt during the course of the game, show different looks and adjust to different looks. That’s something we’re very proud of.”
In 17 regular season home matches, Atlanta won 12. They have already dispatched the New England Revolution and the Philadelphia Union in these MLS Cup Playoffs at their place.
“One of our goals is to outwork them, you have to on the road,” urged Vanney. “Things aren’t going to be perfect, they’re going to have opportunities, have their run in the game. You’ve got to be willing to put in a shift and make smart plays.”
“You have to have all your resources at your disposal and be ready to play,” he added. “That’s what the road warrior mentality is about: be ready to do whatever you have to do in the game to give yourself some advantage.”
And the stadium, with its capacity of some 70 000, will be rocking.
“They’ll have the energy of their stadium, but they’ll also have the pressure of the expectation of winning. I don’t know if that will motivate or hinder,” pondered Vanney. “In New York City we were able to dictate the game right from the start and throughout the first half, force the opposition to make some change. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter what the crowd is or the size of the stadium, the opposition is uncomfortable. We’ve got to put the game on our terms.”
Both sides have been in big games before and know how to navigate the occasion.
“Everyone will have a little bit of anxiety and those butterflies, but by playing in a lot of big games you understand how to manage that, how to step up and utilize that energy in a positive way versus getting handcuffed,” explained Vanney. “Our group understands and is perfectly comfortable being as aggressive as we need to be, not being afraid of losing, being proactive to win. Teams that are less experienced are caught somewhere between trying to not lose and trying to win. For us, we approach these games playing to win. Our guys are comfortable with what that looks like for us.”
It is in these games that mettle is tested.
“It pushes your engagement level and focus level into a whole different zone,” said Vanney. “You really get to find out what teams are about. Some teams can match that level and some teams can’t. That’s the difference between great teams and not great teams, when the pressure is on and you really have to engage are you prepared for those moments.”
And to the victor is a spot in the 2019 MLS Cup Final.
“We love the competition, love when those lights come on,” smiled Bradley. “The opportunity to play in big games, that’s what you play for. When that spotlight comes on, to have a group of guys that embrace that in every way. And not one guy blinks, not one guy is fazed by it, and every single guy is ready to go out and just go for it. In sport, there’s nothing better than that.”