The answer to the question posed in the title is actually a very simple one yet for Toronto FC it will be very hard to achieve when they take the field on Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Galaxy. For me what TFC must do comes down to one single word, balance.
Toronto will need to find a balance in a number of different ways which this post will look at. The main areas that Toronto FC will need to find balance in are: between defending and creating chances, between respecting the Galaxy and fearing them, between being fueled by the crowd and getting caught up in the moment, and between going for the throat in the home leg and remembering that it takes two good results to move on.
In the end if Toronto FC can strike a good balance in those areas it should give them just enough to overcome the reigning MLS Cup Champions. It will certainly not be easy but based on last seasons results, with a weaker squad, against a similar Galaxy side, fans have good reason to at least be cautiously optimistic heading into what is certainly the biggest match that Toronto FC has played to date.
1. Attack and Defense: Finding balance in this area will begin with the coaches, who will probably have spent many hours trying to decide how best to line the team up for this game. I doubt that anyone would be surprised to see Torsten Frings slide into that sweeper role he played last season. He was in that role a bit this preseason so it is clearly not a thing of the past and the fact that it made Toronto FC look better makes me feel that we will see TFC in that 5-2-3/3-4-3 formation. That formation consistently results in a stronger performance from the defense as Frings has proven to be a stabilizer back there. It has also shown that it can increase TFC's strength down the wings as it frees Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley to get forward in support of the attack. The tradeoff of course is that they are giving up Frings in the middle of the pitch which could be painful considering that Julian De Guzman is suspended.
For me, this is the formation that makes the most sense. Leave either Matt Stinson or Terry Dunfield in the middle of the park to play the destroyer role and then let Frings drop a bit deeper. Having Morgan and Eckersley getting forward then allows the wingers to cut in a bit more which is something they have shown that they like to do. Joao Plata, Ryan Johnson, and Reggie Lambe have all shown an eagerness to cut inside and try to make things happen in the box so the defenders will need to provide the width to the attack. If the wing backs are consistently getting forward it will put addition pressure on LA's wide midfielders to get up and down the field faster which could result in a tired out David Beckham. It also makes sense because it avoids playing up the middle too much which is extremely difficult against LA with Juninho holding down the fort.
If that is the formation that the club goes with then it will be up to the players to then go out and find the balance. It will be great to have Eckersley and Morgan getting forward but they are defenders. Any run they make forward has to be a calculated risk as LA are the best team in MLS at turning the ball over and going the other way fast. David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Mike Magee can get forward in the blink of an eye allowing them to link up with Edson Buddle, Robbie Keane, or Chad Barrett in the attack. All that fire power means that Toronto's defenders can not afford to get caught up field with any sort of regularity. So calculated risks and a focus on tracking back will be huge.
2. Respect and Fear: Last season the Galaxy won the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup and somehow they managed to get better for the coming season. They managed to bring back Juninho as well as Edson Buddle while keeping all their other key players around. The only real blow to their roster came in the form of an injury to central defender Omar Gonzalez. Just one glance at their roster loaded with the likes of Donovan, Keane, Buddle, Juninho, Beckham, and Leonardo and you can tell this is a darn good squad. So there is plenty for Toronto to respect.
Toronto will have to strike a balance between having respect for all that fire power and avoiding it turning in to fear. Last seasons results showed that Toronto can play with the Galaxy and that should give them some added confidence. Finding balance in this regard might just have a lot to do with the leadership of head coach Aron Winter and captain Torsten Frings. Both men have played in the World Cup so a big stage and high profile opposition are nothing new to them. In fact, in the rest of the world Winter and Frings are actually two of the biggest names involved in this game despite not having the star power of some of the LAG players. If they can pass that experience along to the rest of the team it will go a long way to striking this much needed balance.
3. Fueled and Carried Away: For many of Toronto FC's players this will be the biggest crowd they have ever played in front of as well as the biggest game they have been involved with. That means that for many of them there is a real chance that they could get caught up in the whole spectacle of the night. If they do that then they might as well just throw in the towel now because any lack of focus will just open the door for the Galaxy and I can guarantee they will make TFC pay for it.
Letting a massive, loud, and supportive crowd drive them forward to play one of the best games of their lives would be just what the team is hoping for. The stage is set, the tickets are sold, the fans will be in good voice so the players will certainly want to rise to the occasion and put in a strong performance. It is a fine balance though between wanting to play your best for a special game and trying too hard. When you try too hard the things that normally come naturally suddenly seem difficult and it can result in a terrible performance instead of the special one you were trying so hard to turn in.
The veterans who have been on this sort of stage before will again have to lead the way by example. The team is not at their own ground so finding some sort of routine that will work at the Dome is going to be key. There has to be some normalcy on this night or the spectacle will be too much.
4. The Throat and Two Legs: This quarter final is being played over two legs. It will be key for Toronto FC to remember that late in the game when they might start getting the desire to push for a little something extra. If for example TFC are up by a goal late in the game it might be tempting to go for it and push forward to try and put the tie to bed in the home leg. That would be a big risk though as TFC would then be left exposed at the back and could end up coming away with nothing.
The same can be said if the team is down by 1 late in the game. They will have to remember that there are still 90 more minutes to be played down in LA so there is no need to get carried away. A team can lose the home leg and still go on to win the tie so going for a late equalizer could backfire with conceding another goal and making the task that much harder.
In the end though regardless of the score Toronto will have to play this quarterfinal as a game of 180 minutes. If the chances are there you go for the throat and make them count but the game at the Dome is only the first half so there's no need to take risks and throw men forward to try and get something unless TFC end up down by a few goals.
It will all come down to being fueled by the moment, making the chances count, and striking those perfect balances if Toronto FC are going to come out of leg one with any sort of positive result.