A solid rest, three-straight wins under their belt, and in good spirits, Toronto FC will look to clinch their first playoff appearance on Wednesday night at BMO Field.
The last three opponents – Colorado, Chicago, and Philadelphia – may not have been the most daunting in the league, but good teams win when they should. Toronto did that. The next three matches, however, are a different story.
Before ending the season away to Montreal, TFC faces two of the teams they trail in the standings, the only luxury being that both matches are at home: the Columbus Crew visit on the weekend, but first, the New York Red Bulls arriving for a midweek clash.
It will not be easy.
Both teams are jostling for finishing positions in a densely-packed East. Columbus sits one point ahead of Toronto, who have a game in hand on the Crew, while New York tops the table, in search of another Supporters Shield. Montreal, that final day foe, sit just one point behind.
Toronto currently sits in fifth on 46 points. A win or a draw, or should Orlando City drop a single point in their remaining two matches, would guarantee that post-season berth.
Given the past eight season, fans have reason to expect, but it is not time to celebrate yet. The next two weeks will be vital in starting off that fall campaign in the right way.
Up first, a familiar opponent – the two met for the first time a mere two months ago; a closer look at this midweek opponent, the New York Red Bulls, is in order.
New York enters Wednesday's match in good form, riding a two-game winning streak, having clinched a playoff-spot, and looking to hoist a second Supporters Shield in the last three seasons – they won in 2013.
Jesse Marsch has his side humming, though there have been stumbles along the way.
Since the mid-August meeting, New York has won five of eight matches, losing the other three. Two of those losses loom as signals that perhaps all is not perfect at Red Bull Arena.
They would follow that win over Toronto with a loss away to a struggling Chicago side, falling 3-2, only to rebound four days later for a big 3-0 win over DC United.
Some revenge against the Fire, turning the 3-2 result in their favour back home – Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella, and Sacha Kljestan responding after Jeff Larentowicz and David Accam had give Chicago a stunning lead – would jump-start September, but a 2-1 loss away to New England would follow – Diego Fagundez and Grella exchanged goals inside of the opening six minutes and Kelyn Rowe found the decider in the 65th minute.
Again on four days rest, they would respond, winning 0-2 away to Portland – Felipe and Damien Perrinelle scoring at the close of the first half to earn the full points.
But then they would trip up at home, falling 2-5 to Orlando City is a shocking result. A hat-trick from Cyle Larin, a single from Bryan Rochez, and a Perrinelle own-goal too much for strikes from Dax McCarty and Lloyd Sam to counter. A red card to Matt Miazga for two bookings did not help their hopes of a comeback.
Since then, a pair of 2-1 wins, over Columbus and Montreal, both at home woulds follow. Against the Crew, Justin Meram opened the scoring in the ninth minute, but Sam and Bradley Wright-Phillips responded in short order.
And most recently against Montreal, a 15th minute red card to Ambroise Oyongo led to Kljestan's penalty kick opener, while also reducing the Impact to ten-men. Sam added a second, but Bradley Wright-Phillips missed a chance to pad the lead when his penalty was saved by Evan Bush. Didier Drogba pulled one back for the visitors from the penalty spot, leading to a nervier-than-needed-to-be finish for the Red Bulls.
New York has just one win in their last four away matches – in Portland, losing to both New England and Chicago after a draw at Montreal at the beginning of August. Seven of their last eleven matches – corresponding to a large portion of their current good run – have been played at home.
August 18 New York Red Bull 3: Toronto FC 0
New York handed Toronto a heavy defeat in their last meeting, perhaps the most lop-sided performance TFC has experienced this season. Toronto were second to every ball, thoroughly outplayed on the night, the Red Bulls running and passing circles around TFC.
Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the first in the 27th minute after Grella sprung him clear down the middle. Anthony Wallace added a second in the 67th minute with a long-range blast that caught Joe Bendik flat-footed, and newly-acquired designated player Gonzalo Veron rounded out the scoring in the 93rd minute, tapping in a rebound.
This will be a stern test for a Toronto side eager to prove their bona fides as playoff contendors.
Marsch does have some lineup questions heading into the match.
Matt Miazga is suspended and will miss their next two matches for both yellow card accumulation and a red card picked up against Orlando City.
Chris Duvale is still recovering from that broken leg suffered in the US Open Cup, while Roy Miller is nursing a knee injury that has kept him out for some time. Anatole Abang, their big forward option, is out with a hamstring injury.
Further muddying the picture is that both Karl Ouimette and Lloyd Sam took part in the Canada-Ghana match played last night in New York. Whether either is able to rejoin the side and feature will likely be a game-time decision.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Luis Robles in goal; from right to left – Sal Zizzo, Ronald Zubar, Damien Perrinelle, and Conor Lade across the back-line; Dax McCarty and Felipe sitting deep with Gonzalo Veron, Sacha Kljestan, and Mike Grella further ahead in the midfield; Bradley Wright-Phillips will top the formation.
That is pretty much the lineup that has featured in their last few matches, with the exception of Veron in for Sam on the right.
There are a few possible alterations. At the back, either Kemar Lawrence or Anthony Wallace could feature – both have tended to operate out of the left-back slot, while Ouimette, if he has returned from international duty, could feature on the right. It is possible that one of Lade, Lawrence, or Wallace could swap over from the left to open that side for one of the others.
Zizzo is more of a midfielder, so if Sebastian Giovinco has returned, he could have a field-day twisting up the right-back. Marsch will be wary of this possibility.
In midfield, Sean Davis has found MLS minutes rare, but impressed against Chelsea earlier this year, while Sean Wright-Phillips has operated more as a substitute. Either could take up Veron's spot on the right side of midfield.
Both teams have matches on the weekend, the Red Bulls returning home to face the Philadelphia Union, so that will factor into decisions as well.
No additional notes this round – time being of the essence; apologies. Faithful readers are encouraged to review the previews of the last meeting – Parts One and Two.
This will be the second meeting between the clubs this season.
The two clubs have met 22 times in MLS play with New York winning twelve, Toronto five, and five ending in draws.
Eleven on those matches have been played in Toronto, where TFC have won four, New York three, and four have ended level.
New York have won the last two and are unbeaten in three – all of which have been played at Red Bull Arena. Toronto are unbeaten in two at home, but New York have taken points from five of their last six visits.
There is a lot of uncertainty regarding Toronto's starting lineup due to the international weekend. Michael Bradley returned from US camp early, but Jozy Altidore and Giovinco will be last minute arrivals. Whether either starts or is available from the bench remains to be seen.