The bags are packed, they’re ready to go.
Toronto FC will begin the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs on Tuesday evening when they welcome Nashville SC to Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut for their Round One encounter.
Nashville beat Inter Miami CF 3-0 on Friday night with goals from Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar, and Dax McCarty to advance from the Play-In Round.
2020 may have been a year unlike any other, but, as the opening weekend of post-season action has shown, the playoffs, with all their intensity, shifting emotions, and a dash of insanity, remain the same.
TFC know what is called for this time of year.
And having secured their spot over a month ago, the last several weeks, especially since their last match on November 8, has been building to this moment.
On the heels of a strenuous season spent largely on the road, the two-plus weeks off was a welcome respite. One they used wisely, recovering from the regular season and preparing for the playoffs.
“We got back, had a few days off. And then we had four days of training – the first day was just very light, then we had three tough days of training, followed by another day off, followed by three days of training, followed by a day off, followed by our natural build up into the game, which is where we are now,” detailed Greg Vanney during Saturday's Zoom conference call. “We've tried to push hard, work on some things in those little windows of sessions, and now that we have an opponent we will focus our attention on what we're trying to do, our strengths and weaknesses relative to theirs.”
With games every few days, it was a welcome change to hit the training pitch with an internal focus.
“We've had a little window here to work on ourselves, which has been nice,” said Vanney. “The same for all the teams who finally, for probably the first time in a while, have actually had a little bit of a training stint to address some things versus just trying to get from game to game.”
“We've tried to utilize that,” he continued. “We will train here [Sunday], then in the afternoon we'll jump on a flight over to Connecticut. We'll train in Connecticut the day before the game and then we'll have a game.”
In a battle of the two expansion sides it was Nashville’s defense-first approach, replete with MLS experience that won out over Miami’s flashier, international star-laden one.
Head Coach Gary Smith has won an MLS Cup before, at BMO Field with the Colorado Rapids in 2010. He knows the league, knows what it takes to lift the ultimate trophy.
Walker Zimmerman, McCarty, Anibal Godoy, Joe Willis, and so on. Names familiar from their stints elsewhere in the league dot their roster and starting eleven.
“They are a very organized team, very committed,” assessed Vanney. “Every single one of them on the field is committed to the defensive work – getting behind the ball, getting numbers between the ball and the goal.”
“They obviously have a strong back-line that is able to slow things up and keep the game in front of them, their midfield works incredibly hard, and their forwards work to get connected to their to their group, so if the game is relatively slow or if you play too many back passes you're going to have to break down all 11 of them to get something to goal,” he continued. “The attacking side, since they've gotten healthy, they have some good players out there that, obviously [against Miami] showed, can make some plays.”
“The mobility of Dax and Godoy to manipulate things at the start of their build out, all the way up to Leal and Mukhtar – those guys are crafty and very interesting players – they're a well-organized team for sure. Not afraid to go direct in moments when they feel the pressure is too much,” Vanney observed. “A risk-averse game for them, but they don't give up much so it makes them a very difficult team to beat.”
Nashville rode that strong defensive cohesion – Zimmerman was recently named Defender of the Year – to a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference by conceding just 22 goals in 23 matches.
Only Columbus Crew SC (21) and the Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union (20) allowed fewer.
With only 24 scored, goals may have been hard to come by – only Atlanta United FC (23) and FC Cincinnati (12) scored less, both of whom missed the playoffs – but as their three-goals on Friday exhibited, they have some firepower.
The two sides were originally scheduled to meet once this year, back on March 14. That obviously did not happen and so Tuesday’s clash will be the first-ever meeting between the clubs, adding an element of the unknown to the mix.
“We like the freshness of it,” admitted Vanney. “It's nice to play somebody that you haven't played four or five times this year. We'll have to do our homework, they'll do their homework, but there's something fun about that and we'll be looking forward to it.”
With over two weeks since their last action, Toronto’s first task will be to match the intensity of a team that has already survived a knockout match.
The rhythm of a playoff game is just different.
“Make sure that we use our experience and we meet the intensity of the game right from the start, understanding what a playoff game looks like,” urged Vanney. “That's the difference for me right now: [Nashville] have felt it, they've done it, and now we've got to get ourselves up to speed from the opening whistle.”
“Aside from that, all these are one game at a time,” he continued. “You're just trying to get the result on the day and then you move to the next day. These aren't games about building your style of play or anything like that. Every play matters – every set-piece, every throw-in, every free-kick – everything matters now in the game and making the right decisions. They’ve felt that. We've got to make sure that we enter this game with that mentality right from the start.”
TFC have been here before and will lean on that experience going forward.
“We're in a good spot. We have a good mix of guys ready to go,” said Vanney. “The first game is a pivotal game for us to go out, do well, and, ultimately, to win the game and earn the right for the next game.”
There is a common view that the team who enters in the best form stands the best chance of lifting the MLS Cup. While there is an element of common sense about that, for Vanney, such matters of style and form go out the window.
“We’ve seen this,” he explained. “The playoffs in 2017 we were in incredible form and we grinded through the playoffs to get to the final. We played phenomenal in the final, but we grinded through a good chunk of the playoffs.”
Those series against the New York Red Bulls and Crew SC were anything but pretty.
“It's ultimately about using our experience, it's about going out there and trying to create the game that we want to see against Nashville, but it's also about being able to adapt if circumstances aren't exactly how we prepared for them,” Vanney added. “We'll see, but we’re very confident and very comfortable with what we have, guys are ready to go out and compete.”
Every bit of preparation helps.
Toronto have sought to combat any rust forming by varying and ramping up their training as the game approaches.
“We've tried to get a fair amount of 11 vs. 11 playing, open up the space, increase the speed of the games, increase the intensity,” detailed the coach. “We've tried to duplicate as much as possible the intensity and speed and the organization, all the things that we think are going to be important.”
“As with all teams, we’ll rely a little bit on our team's experience of being in these moments and understanding what that looks like,” he added. “It's not a naive group. It's a team that understands the gravity of the moment and the intensity of the moment.”
A little bit of luck never hurts either.
Cue the lucky scarf.
“We'll see if it gets the call or not,” smiled Vanney. “But yeah it's packed up, it’s ready to go.”