It’s not every week that a team battles two opponents at once.
Toronto FC will square off against the New York Red Bulls – the near opposition – on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Simultaneously, some 150 kilometres away the far-opponent, the Philadelphia Union, will be hosting the New England Revolution.
It’s Decision Day and the Supporters’ Shield is on the line.
Heading into the weekend Toronto and Philadelphia are level on points, but with the Union holding a superior goal-difference the ball is at their foot.
TFC need the better result on the day. If the Union lose a draw will suffice. If they tie, TFC must win.
“In simple terms, yeah, win the game, just play the 90 minutes,” summed up Greg Vanney of the task in front of his side. “The Red Bulls are always a challenging team and so it's about taking the proper risks, but be smart about how we do it and take our opportunities. We've played them relatively recently so we have a feel for what things are like, but it'll be a tough game. Our side will be to do what we can to help ourselves and then see what happens with the other game.”
“Our approach is to get a result on the weekend and hope that the other result goes in our favour and raise another trophy,” he continued. “But the only thing that we can control is ourselves and our performance and at the end of 90 minutes hoping our performance is good enough to get the win or the result that we need.”
For the first time in a while, TFC will be relatively well-rested, having had a week since Sunday’s 2-1 win over Inter Miami CF at Rentschler Field. The team was able to return home to see their loved ones before returning to East Hartford, Connecticut to prepare for the match.
“It’s good because we can see the family,” said Alejandro Pozuelo, who added yet another late, game-winning penalty kick last weekend. “Two-three days with the family and this gives us power for Sunday.”
“We know this is the last regular game. We know we can win the Supporters’ Shield. This is important for the team, but the most important is to win the game,” he added. “And wait. I hope New England can be a surprise there in Philadelphia.”
Heightened circumstances will not alter Toronto’s approach.
“The same: we need to go for the game,” levelled Pozuelo. “We know the important thing is to win this game because we depend on Philadelphia to draw or lose. We need to go for the game from the start – Red Bull need also to win for the sixth possession. We need to go for it from the first minute, we need to take the three points and afterwards wait.”
There may, however, be some scoreboard watching.
“The most important thing for us is to worry about ourselves,” began Michael Bradley. “To step on the field, go after the game in a really good, strong way, try to finish off the regular season playing really well and taking a big three points.”
“Will we keep an eye on what's going on in Philadelphia? Absolutely,” he continued. “Certainly at halftime we'll all have an understanding of what the score is there. As you move into the second half, we'll want to make sure that we know what's going on because the reality is that if they tie then we know that we have to win. But if there's a situation where they're losing, then we also know that a point is enough. We want to make sure that we have all the information and we are, especially as you get into the late stages of the game, managing everything in the way that we need to to put ourselves in the best position to win the Supporters’ Shield.”
To keep them up-to-date, the eyes in the sky will have an additional task.
“We have guys that are upstairs watching the game, feeding us information. That's pretty standard,” explained Vanney. “Those same people can be scoreboard watching I suppose and providing us with anything that we need to know in real time.”
“We're going to play for the result until the end because in MLS the craziest things happen in the final few minutes of games,” he reminded. “To have the information is good, but to play for the best result we can is the position we're going to be in for a vast majority of the game and then we'll see where we're at at the end.”
To be in the running for the Supporters’ Shield a team has to treat every match with the same importance. That said, some are inherently bigger than others.
Toronto, over the past several seasons, has vast experience on nights such as these.
“We have been together on a lot of big days,” said Bradley. “The experiences that we've shared over the years mean that when the lights come on bright, we feel good about who we are, about what we are. There's a real confidence in the guy standing next to you; that we're stepping on that field ready to give everything and ready to go for it in a really big way.”
“It's a big game,” he continued. “Obviously, for us, for our team, for our club, the Supporters’ Shield is always an ambition. We want to be a team that from the first game to the last game is consistent, is able to separate ourselves from the rest of the league, in terms of our play, in terms of the results.”
“Obviously it's been a crazy year and nobody would have been able to predict so much of what has gone on, but we still feel really good about what we have been able to do,” Bradley added. “So, when that whistle blows we're going to play 90 more minutes in the regular season in a really good way and position ourselves to win the Shield if Philadelphia drop points.”
The far opponent will have something to say about who ends up on top come the final whistles.
“Philadelphia have a good team, they've had a good season. I have a lot of respect for the way that they've built their club and built their team over the last few years,” praised Bradley. “I know Jim Curtin very well. He's a great guy, he’s a really good coach. The way that he has been able to improve that team and really move the club along has been impressive. They have a nice blend of talented young players, veteran guys who give the group stability and experience.”
“We have respect for them, but at the same time we also know that when you have a team that hasn't had any of the big success yet, that, when you get to moments like this, you can feel that, there's still a little bit of pressure and still a little bit of a feeling like the onus is on them to now have to win a game at home with everything on the line,” he continued. “They're a good team – there's no two ways about it, but we still feel like if we can go to Red Bull Arena, play well, come away with three points, that we are going to put ourselves in a good spot. If Philly are able to take care of business on the day, then congratulations to them and we'll get ourselves ready for the playoffs.”
So too will the near opponent.
“They’ll be them,” quipped Vanney. “They're going to be organized, they'll look to make the game difficult on us, choose their moments to be aggressive and they're very direct in the way that they play once they win the ball. The formula doesn't change, so I expect it'll be similar.”
TFC and the Red Bulls last met on October 14, a 1-1 draw that snapped a five-game winning streak for the Reds with teenage sensation Caden Clark coming off the bench to level with a wonderful strike in the 77th minute, cancelling out Pozuelo’s first half penalty kick.
“Neither team can win the game in the first few minutes,” cautioned Vanney. “It's going to be a long game and we have to be calculated about things that are in our half the field and we've got to take advantage of our opportunities when we get them.”
“The last time we played them we had some chances we didn't put away,” he continued. “They had a couple that we probably would have liked to have made a little less clean for them and obviously the young man took a great goal to equalize.”
“It's always a hard fought game. We've got to be ready to compete. That's one thing that for sure they're going to do,” Vanney added. “They're going to come out and they're going to compete, they're going to be physical and they're going to get tight to you and they're going to get tight fast. We've got to be prepared for that.”
It is fitting that on the latest ‘big day’ in the history of TFC the Red Bulls are the ones standing in the way. Aside from perhaps Montreal or Seattle, they are the most poetic of opposition.
It was the Red Bulls in 2009 who denied TFC a first-ever post-season berth at Giants Stadium. Then in 2015 it was against those same Red Bulls that Sebastian Giovinco got off a plane and scored the goal that pushed the Reds over that line.
That match kicked off a series of intense contests both on the field and off, in the regular season, in the playoffs, in the record books, and in a manner with mirrored runs in the Concacaf Champions League, including an epic 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinal series where TFC advanced on away goals to win the MLS Cup.
“You always know what you're going to get when you play Red Bull,” said Bradley. “Certainly the games that we had with them over the course of a year or two in 2016-2017, those games were played at a really high level, in football ways, but also just in terms of the competition. There was a little bit of an understated rivalry there for sure.”
“Their team has changed a little bit over the last few years, so in some ways, some of the feelings from those years maybe are gone, but every time you play against Red Bull nothing comes easy. Every play is contested. They're going to be willing to step up and be aggressive and push the game at a high tempo,” he anticipated. “We enjoy the challenge of playing against them and so it should be another good game. Red Bull Arena is always a great stadium to go to, so we're excited.” t