As the temperature drops, the action intensifies.
That has been on evidence through Round One of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Play-In matches on Friday were the appetizer: late drama in New England where Gustavo Bou scored a 95th minute winner to see the Revolution advance past the Montreal Impact and Nashville SC outclassed expansion cousins Inter Miami CF 3-0.
Saturday doubled down: the madness and confusion of the penalty shootout in Florida where Orlando City SC needed a defender to step into goal to see out the victory and the Red Bulls struck first in Columbus, only for Crew SC to come storming back with three goals.
And Sunday upped the ante with two more penalty shootouts, won by Sporting KC and FC Dallas, never mind three more goals after the 90th minute mark. By comparison Minnesota United’s 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids was positively pedestrian.
The final three games of the first round are set for Tuesday night with the Philadelphia Union hosting the Revolution, Seattle Sounders FC and LAFC clashing in the West, and, most importantly, Toronto FC welcoming Nashville to Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.
There was a concern that when the league moved from the two-game series to a single-elimination matches would get more cagey.
That has not been the case.
“Teams are trying to get out in front of the game, trying to get the first goal, trying to get the balance of power early,” observed Greg Vanney on a Zoom call on Monday. “There's a lot of teams in our league now that are pressing oriented and it's created some pretty interesting match-ups. Nobody wants to really give away anything, but at the same time they're trying to stick with what got them there and so it's been intriguing.”
“Multiple games have had their moments of excitement or other things that come into the equation because emotions are high, everything is on the line, and things start to get a little bit fuzzy,” he continued. “It's been fun to watch, as the playoffs always are, and little less calculated. Sometimes in a two-game [series], you can get a little more tactical and there's a break in between where you can work on things. These are you trying to get on top of the game from the start and play from the front.”
Toronto enter the action well-rested and ready.
“Mentally it was huge for guys to be able to have the two weeks at home,” said Michael Bradley. “The club has done an incredible job of making every part of Hartford as good as it could – the hotel, the people at the hotel, the facilities that we've used to train, the stadium – but it’s not home. Had we been forced to be here [in Hartford] over the last two weeks or large stretches of it, that's a lot of downtime where you're counting down the days until the next game.”
“And so for everybody to be able to be at home, to see our families, to have a little bit of normal routine in this crazy year, that part was priceless,” he continued. “We feel good about the work that we were able to get done. We got a little bit of Toronto weather [Sunday] before we got out of there and the sense was one of real excitement and anticipation as we got on the plane and as we got back here.”
For players like Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and the rest of the long-time servants, Tuesday’s match is nothing new. They have played in these big games, a lot of them over the last few seasons.
But for some of the younger players this will be yet another new experience.
“It's been one of the best parts of this season to see the opportunities that some of our younger players have earned and the way that they have taken those and really run with that,” said Bradley. “That part we're all excited about and proud of, and obviously it's played a big part in the success because it's been a year where we've needed everybody.”
It has been a season of lesson learning. This is just the latest.
“We have a close group and so as playoffs get closer, making sure that guys without that experience start to feel and understand the fact that everything gets cranked up a few notches gets done in different ways,” explained the captain. “When the intensity and the focus in training goes up another few notches, they sense that. In conversations at meals or on the bus or wherever that is, trying to give guys a little bit of a sense of what playoff games and playoff atmospheres are like. And obviously just watching the games over the last few days, you get a sense of that.”
“There's no manual where it's like we've got to tell them about this on this day and we got to tell them about that on the next day,” he added. “It all happens in a natural, organic way and it'll mean when we need, everybody is ready to go.”
The message from the coach is the same to all the players.
“Just be yourself, trust the team, trust each other, stay together as a group,” Vanney urged. “When we defend, defend together. When we get the ball, move quickly, get it off our foot, get it to our teammate when they need it. And be yourself.”
“There's no need to try to do more because it's a playoff game. It's still a soccer game. We still win it the same way and you still have to read the game to make the right decisions and pick the right solution and be aware of your surroundings,” he continued. “There's nothing different about these games. I don't want anybody to be different. I just think that our engagement level has to be high.”
“We have to give the proper respect to every play and take nothing for granted,” Vanney stressed. “That's the difference sometimes in these one-off games: it can be one silly play or one great play that can be the difference between moving on and not. And so take every situation with the greatest of focus and concentration and attention to detail. That's it, just lock in, engage, and be themselves, and give the game what it needs.”
A season unlike any other comes down to something more familiar.
“It's 90 minutes,” summed up Bradley. “You saw it last year and you've seen it again through the first few games this year, where no one holds anything back.”
“It doesn't matter whether you are playing at home or away – even more so now with stadiums that are either empty or only a few fans. It doesn't matter. Recent form, all this stuff, none of it matters, right. It's 90 minutes and two teams that are playing for their season,” he continued. “I don't think it can surprise anybody that you see games that are, in moments, crazy and chaotic and you have teams that, when they go down, they throw caution to the wind and are just ready to go for it because why wouldn't you?”
“All you've got is 90 minutes and that's that. It can make for some entertaining games,” Bradley closed. “The big takeaway for me is that regardless of anything, whether you score first, concede first, regardless of who you're playing, where you're playing, you better have a group that's ready to play from the first second until the very last one because a lot of these games certainly don't follow any script, that's for sure.”