Thirty-four games over eight months, and Toronto FC's season all comes down to this; a midweek single-elimination date with the Philadelphia Union. On Wednesday night, BMO Field will be the venue for the first home playoff game in franchise history, and TFC are now gearing up for arguably the most important match they've ever played.
On Decision Day, TFC did what they needed to do, with a 3-2 win over the Chicago Fire. Results elsewhere didn't go their way, though, as New York City beat the Columbus Crew to force the Reds into this do-or-die knockout round, which they were very much hoping to avoid. Of course, TFC likely could have avoided it of their own volition by scoring a little more in the last month of the season.
Nonetheless, Toronto FC find themselves in a decent spot. They'll be playing in front of a raucous crowd Wednesday, and home-field advantage definitely gives them an edge in a must-win game. They've played Philadelphia twice this season; one, a 3-1 victory on the road and the second a 1-1 draw during the lacklustre 0-1-3 homestand in September.
Over the whole season, Philadelphia's offence has been fairly equitable to Toronto's, with one more total goal scored (52). Chris Pontius leads the way for them with 12 goals. The Union do have some defensive issues though, having conceded 55 times compared to TFC's 39.
Neither Toronto nor the Union have much playoff history, with each side only making one appearance. Philadelphia qualified for the 2011 postseason, where they were beaten twice by the Houston Dynamo, and as we all know the Reds were bounced a year ago in Montreal. One of these teams will win their first ever playoff game on Wednesday.
On the way to the playoffs, Philadelphia stumbled even more than Toronto. They go into Wednesday's game on a three-game losing streak and haven't won since August 27, making them 0-5-2 in the last two months of the season (for reference, TFC went 2-1-4 in the same stretch). However, Toronto FC have been known to succumb to trap games. They may have only squeaked into the playoffs, but the Union still made it in and in a single-elimination game anything can happen.
Philadelphia has some key strengths. Fabinho, slotting in at left back, has delivered the most successful crosses in MLS this year with 30, and will be looking for the 6'1" CJ Sapong in the box. Fortunately for TFC, both Drew Moor and Nick Hagglund are quite capable in the air and are good at getting to balls sent in high.
As always when it comes to Toronto FC, Sebastian Giovinco will undoubtedly be the x-factor in this game. He was absent for much of the last two months, and as such did not play a part in the late-season struggles that dropped the Reds out of the top two in the conference. In effect, he restored normality at BMO Field on Sunday with a penalty goal and a beautiful assist on Justin Morrow's goal in a man of the match performance that showed just how much TFC's attack missed him.
Giovinco can exploit Philadelphia's defence as long as he continues to receive decent service from Jonathan Osorio and, crucially, Armando Cooper. Those two midfielders will be essential for TFC as no striker, not even Giovinco, can win a game for his team unless he gets the ball.
Against Chicago, coach Greg Vanney opted for a drastically different lineup than we've seen recently, with three central defenders on the field. It worked to varying success; TFC conceded early with some very ugly defending, but they did end up with the win, one goal scored by a defender (Justin Morrow) given more freedom to push upfield.
It would be very risky to stick with that lineup on Wednesday. It may have worked to shake things up and get the team back on form, but it didn't seem to work well enough to warrant being a permanent change.
Ultimately, TFC would be the on-paper favourite for this game. They're in marginally better form with Sunday's win, and they have home field advantage. But, of course, this is Toronto FC. Nothing would be particularly surprising.