Toronto FC will take to the pitch on Saturday in an unfamiliar position.... in the playoffs.
Wednesday night was strange. Everyone knew they were very likely to reach the post-season, but few were willing to believe it. Even less probable was that the team would roll to a fourth-straight win, against the best team in the league, thus clinching at home, allowing them to celebrate in front of their fans.
It has been a long eight-plus years in the making. And that emotion was definitely palpable on a night that will live long in the memories of the Toronto Sports Fan.
But, as TFC themselves have been so fond of stating, their mission is far from over. This team knows that the playoffs are merely mark the start of a larger goal.
The next milestone on that journey will be to assure a home playoff game and a week of rest by locking up one of the byes into the conference semifinals.
Two games remain.
The final weekend, Decision Day as MLS has branded it, will see them travel to Montreal; depending on results this weekend, there is a chance that the Impact will be playing for their survival.
First, however, Toronto has another marker on the road to surpass... the Trillium Cup.
Granted, it is hardly the most illustrious trophy, but one should never overlook a chance to hoist a trophy – good practice – especially in front of the home crowd.
Their opponents, Columbus, will be eager to arrest their current slide with the post-season in the balance; expect a fierce challenge. While watching the two best players in the league – Sebastian Giovinco and Kei Kamara – go head-to-head as they duel for the Golden Boot and the MVP title will be worth the price of admission.
The two clubs have met twice already this season, but still, a closer look at this weekend's enemy, the Columbus Crew is in order.
The Crew will enter Saturday's match on a bit of a slide, having lost their last two matches and three of their last five. But hidden within that stumble is the fact that Columbus have won three of their last four away games – they will not go down easily.
On 47 points from 32 matches, the Crew are yet to secure a berth in the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. They finish off the season back home against DC United.
Since the two last met at the end of July, Columbus' season has been a story of shifting momentum.
Following the come-from-behind draw from TFC, Columbus fell 5-2 in Orlando City – a result few would have predicted to kick off August, but they responded through the rest of the month with a run of four-unbeaten. A 1-2 win in Colorado was backed up with a 2-2 draw at home to New York City FC. Three days later they beat Sporting KC 3-2 before handing NYC FC a 1-2 defeat at Yankee Stadium.
September began with a similar humbling, falling 0-3 to a visiting FC Dallas side – Atiba Harris grabbed the first, with Michael Barrios and David Texeira adding second half strikes to round out the scoring..
But successive 1-2 road wins, away to Philadelphia – a Kamara brace too much for a CJ Sapong strike – and DC – Ethan Finlay and Kamara scoring before Chris Rolfe could pull one back from the penalty spot, would be followed by the same result at home, falling by the odd-goal in three to Portland – Fanendo Adi scoring either side of another Kamara strike (his 22nd of the season).
That same score would see them stumble once more, losing away to the New York Red Bulls. Justin Meram nabbed the first after just nine minutes, but Lloyd Sam and Bradley Wright-Phillips put the hosts in front within twelve minutes.
Further complicating matters for the Crew is that they will be entering the match on the back of fourteen days rest. A chance to breathe at the end of a long season is never a bad thing, but whether some rust will have formed with the long lay-off remains to be seen.
A quick start from Toronto may be too much for them to handle. Columbus has not kept a clean sheet since July 15th, a run of twelve matches – there will be goals.
July 25th Columbus Crew SC 3: Toronto FC 3
The Crew rollicked to a three-goal lead inside the opening 47 minutes, only for TFC to claw back, earning a much-needed draw. It was a performance that may have turned Toronto's season.
Kamara scored the first in the 17th minute, heading a Federico Higuain ball to the left-side of goal past Joe Bendik. Tony Tchani added a second in the 36th minute, placing a right-footer from the arc to the bottom right-corner of goal.
And Finlay made it three, seemingly securing the points in the 47th minute, surging onto the end of a Meram ball to place a finish past Bendik.
But TFC responded three minutes later through Giovinco met a Collen Warner cross with a low shot across the keeper.
Warner himself added a second in the 55th minute, blasting a Dan Lovitz ball across the top of the box into the back of the net after Giovinco laid Lovitz down the left.
Jozy Altidore would net the equalizer from an 89th minute penalty kick after he was bundled over in the area by Waylon Francis, beating Steve Clark with an effort to the left-side of goal.
With the single point, Toronto prevented Columbus from securing another Trillium Cup, what would have been their sixth, as the Crew had won the March meeting by a 2-0 scoreline. In that two-team competition, the Crew have four points, TFC one, with Columbus holding a 5-3 goal advantage – a full breakdown of the tie-breaker procedures can be viewed here.
Heading into the match, Gregg Berhalter has pretty much the entire squad at his disposal. The only players unavailable are Chad Barson and Matt Lampson, a defender and a keeper, both listed as out.
Berhalter has been remarkably consistent in his starting lineup, especially in their forward six. Often the only changes that appear are along the back-line, where plenty of variation is possible, especially at centre-back, which is never a good thing at this point in the season.
There projected lineup is as follows: Steve Clark in goal; from right to left – Harrison Afful, Gaston Sauro, Michael Parkhurst, and Waylon Francis across the back; Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp sitting deep with Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, and Justin Meram further ahead in the midfield; Kei Kamara will top the formation.
Afful has pretty much locked down that right-back spot since joining in midseason, though the likes of Hector Jimenez and the injured Barson have been serviceable. Chris Klute, formerly of Colorado, is a left-sided option, who has seen little time backing up Francis.
The summer acquisition of Sauro has displaced Emmanuel Pogatetz from the starting lineup, while Tyson Wahl has often been preferred to the, at times erratic, Austrian.
In midfield, Mohammed Saeid has seen plenty of time in place of Trapp, who missed nearly three months with a concussion and its subsequent symptoms. Kevan George in another option in the middle. While on the flanks, the likes of Cedrick Mabwati, Kristinn Steindorsson, and Ben Speas are all options.
It would require some sort of catastrophic turn of events for either Jack McInerney or Aaron Schoenfeld to displace Kamara from the first eleven.
No detailed breakdowns this week – again, time being of the essence. Apologies once more, normal service will resume for the trip to Montreal next weekend. Voracious readers are encouraged to check out the notes from the previous meeting – given Berhalter's reliability not much will have changed since then.
The two sides have met 24 times in MLS play with Columbus winning eleven, Toronto five, and eight ending in draws.
Ten of those games have been played at BMO Field, where the Crew have won three, TFC two, and five have ended level.
Columbus are unbeaten in the two meetings this season, but Toronto have won the last two at home and have lost just once in the last five encounters.