Put that X on the board.
Toronto FC clinched their spot in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, the first team to do so, on Sunday night with a 1-0 win away to FC Cincinnati.
Patrick Mullins, one of several changes Greg Vanney made to the starting eleven, scored the only goal in the 29th minute with some good movement in the box to open himself up for a pass from Richie Laryea.
There was a late scare when Cincinnati were awarded a penalty kick in stoppage-time, but Omar Gonzalez got a birthday reprieve with video review annulling the initial decision.
The victory extends the current winning streak to five matches, the unbeaten run to seven, and maintains the three-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield race.
An ‘x’ beside the club’s name in the standings is all well and good, but for TFC it is a statement of intent more than an accomplishment in and of itself.
“I know the guys are proud of it, but they have their eyes on something a little bit bigger here over this stretch,” said Vanney. “It's nice to have the playoff spot, but our guys are looking at the fact that they're at the top of the table and competing every play to stay there.”
“They're staying focused, they're staying locked in and they're giving it every single day for each other,” he continued. “We’ve got a tough two games ahead of us. This was the hump game, in three days we play again, which is a little bit of a shorter rest, so we’ve just got to regroup and keep it going.”
It is an indication, a signpost along the way, especially in times as challenging as these.
“It just goes to show how great of a club this is and the mentality that we have here to keep going, no matter what's thrown at us,” decoded Jonathan Osorio, who captained the side once more. “Obviously there's been a lot of obstacles that have been thrown to every team in the league. Us, here at Toronto, we have dealt with that in the best possible way from top to bottom and it shows on the field when we're getting results.”
“The team has such good character and guys that have experienced so much in the last several years,’ he continued. “We believe here. We know what we're capable of. We have high expectations for ourselves and to clinch a playoff spot so early, to be the first ones in the league to clinch with everything going on, it's a huge compliment and says a lot about this club.”
Sunday wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty. Rather it was patient and professional.
“We weren't fantastic with the ball for sure,” admitted Vanney. “At times we were rushing things. At times in the first half we were a little all over the place with our movement, we weren't getting the runs and the positioning that we needed to and we'd like to. It got to be a little bit random.”
“Because of that and with the turf and maybe a little bit of fatigue, we were losing too many balls between our lines that then turn into transitions. When you [do that] you have to work double hard in recovery so the field starts to get long,” he continued. “It started to wear on us over the course of the game which really made it a grind. We didn't hold the ball as much as we needed to – there was a few stretches where we were able to, but not enough through the course of the game for us to really manage the tempo the way we'd like to.”
“But we defended hard, we protected our goal. They didn't have a lot of great looks – some crosses that we had to deal with, but nothing that Q [Quentin Westberg] really had to come up with, so we defended well nevertheless.”
It was a second straight 1-0 win, the sixth of the season. The mark of a team that finds a way.
“It's been tough, but we've been able to grind it,” explained Osorio. “Obviously we want to score more than one goal in a game, but, championship DNA, you have to be able to win 1-0 because this is the way, sometimes, games are in the playoffs.”
“You have to grind it out and defensively you have to be really sharp, so this is really good for us right now,” he added. “This is showing us that we can do this and it gets us ready.”
After a few half-chances, it was Mullins, starting his second game of the season, who found the breakthrough when he stayed high in the box, getting open to receive the cut-back from Laryea on the right before blasting a right-footer past Przemyslaw Tyton in the Cincinnati goal.
It was his first goal of the regular season, adding to the consolation goal he struck in the Knockout Round of the MLS is Back Tournament.
“Pat has been working really hard in training, looked sharp in all the finishing exercises, so I wasn't surprised when he made a great run in the box to pull his angle out and give Richie the cut-back cross and then finished it nicely,” said Vanney. “He gave us a great shift, worked to hold up the ball and to compete for long balls, to give us the defensive work.”
“Just really good workmanship for Pat,” he added. “In a day where we didn't have a ton of the possession that we would normally like to have, he gave us what we needed and got a goal for his work.”
Mullins was one of several changes from the match in New England midweek, Vanney took the opportunity to do some rotation, get some valuable minutes to players who haven’t seen as much action and some equally important rest to those who have.
Jayden Nelson, Liam Fraser, and Eriq Zavaleta also got starting nods.
“Everybody who stepped in did their part, did exactly what was asked of them and more,” said Osorio. “It's not easy and they did an amazing job.”
“Championship teams have depth and when your depth is called upon they're always ready to perform,” he added. “We're really happy right now with where we're at as a team, the results that we’re getting and the performance of everybody who's called upon.”
It was the 18-year-old Nelson’s first official start in MLS, having had another in Orlando that did not count towards the regular season tallies.
“It's another game of experience for Jayden,” began Vanney. “All of these opportunities he's learning on the fly; learning different things each time.”
“Today he did a good job of competing and grinding. He had some good moments, especially there at the end when he went through a few guys – he decides to try to cut and go to goal when he should probably release it wide and just keep his run going towards the goal, but he tries to do a little extra,” coached the coach. “He competed and battled and he helped the team win. And if you can help the team win, you get more chances and you get to keep learning. There's a few things that I'll talk to him about to build on from this experience, but it was great to have him out there for about 60 minutes.”
Fellow teenager Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty was on the bench, but did not see action.
90 minutes from Fraser and Zavaleta saw both put in strong outings.
“Liam had a solid game,” said Vanney. “A couple times he got stuck with the ball because his pressure picked up and the turf was kind of bouncy. In general, he gets the ball, moves it quickly, gets into the next guy, he patrols the midfield, went into some tackles – did a lot of things for us tonight.”
He hit a few lovely defense-splitting balls too, one that nearly saw Alejandro Pozuelo nab the opener. Zavaleta, on the other hand, barely put a foot wrong all night, intervening when needed and forcing the attack wide on one of Cincinnati’s few decent looks.
“Eriq was very solid centre-back-wise,” Vanney continued. “Defended well, in good spots, cut out some crosses, some balls they tried to play behind the back-line. His positioning was very good.”
“He had a solid night,” he summed up. “The whole back-line did a nice job of not giving up many chances. We bent a little bit throughout the game, but we never broke.”
With the schedule jam-packed – TFC plays two more games in the next week before finally having more than four days rest only to then embark on another flurry of three matches in eight days before closing the season on November 8 – the ability to get the job done in a variety of ways while leaning on depth is invaluable.
With six games remaining and a post-season spot secured, attention turns to the next goal.
“We're going for everything,” said Osorio. “We want to fight for the Supporters’ Shield, we're in the race for that. We've done the first step, which is to clinch a playoff spot, and now we're looking to put ourselves in position to be fighting for the Shield at the end of the year.”
“We celebrate this win tonight and tomorrow morning we put our focus on New York Red Bulls – another big game against a tough opponent, who is coming off a good win at a tough place,” he added, referencing their 1-0 win at Atlanta United FC on Saturday. “It's going to be a tough game. We have to recover, get ourselves turned around and ready to put in for a good battle.”