With Wednesday's first ever playoff win for Toronto FC, the immense pressure on the club prior to their 3-1 defeat of the Philadelphia Union has lifted. Now, with New York City FC coming to BMO Field for the first leg of the Eastern Conference semi-final, the load shifts to the second-seeded visitors.
TFC exorcised some demons against Philadelphia, proving that they are capable of delivering in do-or-die situations. Granted, the Union were slumping badly, but Toronto's performance was certainly nothing to sniff at. Now, though, it's NYC's turn to show that they can win when it really counts. Sunday evening's game will be the first playoff game in club history, in just their second year of existence. Their fans suffered far less than TFC's waiting for a playoff team, but nonetheless the pressure is on.
Relieving some of the tension is the two-legged format of this matchup. Both teams will have a second chance a week from now at Yankee Stadium. However, with the away goals tiebreaking format, defence has to be the number one priority for Toronto FC on Sunday. Even if they win, conceding a goal at home would make life difficult for them in the away leg.
The trouble there is that NYCFC love to score. They've put in 62 goals this year, including 27 on the road. David Villa finished second in MLS with 23 total goals, and is a candidate for league MVP. Fortunately for TFC, though, City's defence has been notoriously leaky, having surrendered 57 goals (18 more than Toronto).
They may not have been in MLS for long, but New York's star trio of Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard all know how to play in big games. The North American playoff format for deciding a league champion may be a little foreign, but all three players have won the UEFA Champions League with their former European clubs. Villa and Pirlo have both won the World Cup as well. So, there's a lot of experience in NYCFC's dressing room.
Toronto FC will have a very tough time keeping NYC off the scoresheet. They have been shut out seven times this year though, and TFC's goalkeepers have 12 clean sheets to their name.
New York loves to play in midfield, and with players like Andrea Pirlo there they can wreak havoc on TFC's players, especially if they clog up the centre of the pitch. For that reason, Greg Vanney will likely stick to the 3-5-2 formation that's worked the last two games, as it's added more fluidity to Toronto's attack and allowed wingback defenders like Justin Morrow to play with the ball out wide.
In two years of competition, NYCFC have never lost to Toronto. The Reds have a total record of 0-2-3 against them, having drawn both games between the two teams this year. This is a different stage, though, and TFC is the only one of these teams that has a playoff win.
New York City may have David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, but TFC have their counter in Sebastian Giovinco. He's almost indisputably now the best player in MLS. It doesn't stop there, though, as Jozy Altidore's forward chemistry with Giovinco is possibly the most dangerous weapon in the league. NYC have not defended well this year, and they'll have a lot on their hands at BMO Field.
Michael Bradley was excellent against Philadelphia, particularly in the first half as TFC shut down the Union. He could actually be even more important for Toronto against New York than Giovinco, as they'll have a tougher time defending than scoring.
Greg Vanney said this week that he has a fully healthy team to pick his lineup from. There's not likely much he'll change from Wednesday's squad, though. Now that Jonathan Osorio seems to have found his scoring touch again, he's made himself almost undroppable.
The only real lineup decision for Vanney will be between Armando Cooper or the newly healthy Will Johnson in midfield. Johnson came into the game late on Wednesday, and didn't make much of an impact. He may be able to offer more defensively, but Cooper has played very well in his starting appearances. The Panamanian is also capable of being a thorn in Pirlo's side, so may be the better option.
Basically, this matchup is going to be a treat to watch. World-class talents will be up against each other, and there will be goals. Sunday's game is appropriately in the primetime slot, as it's definitely the most exciting MLS playoff match on the schedule.
With home-field advantage and momentum behind them, Toronto FC aren't in bad shape. The key is keeping a clean sheet, but it may be impossible to keep David Villa down.
Projected Starting XI: