Greg Vanney had one of his biggest decisions of the season to make.
With the score still 0-0 and New York City FC starting to play their way into the Toronto FC half late on Sunday night, it would not have been totally surprising to see the coach bring on Will Johnson or Benoit Cheyrou, tighten things up and ensure his side did not concede a costly away goal.
A scoreless draw at home, after all, would have left Toronto needing to score and avoid defeat at Yankee Stadium to progress to the Eastern Conference final - not easy, but far from impossible.
But Vanney wanted more. “We wanted to get the goal,” he said afterwards. “If it had ended 0-0, it wouldn't have been the worst night ever, but it was never our intention.
“We wanted at least one out of it, make sure we kept the zero on the other side. It took a long time, but they were rewarded in the end.”
Instead, Vanney swapped a midfielder, Jonathan Osorio, for Tosaint Ricketts, an extra forward, and a minute later Toronto had the lead. By the end, 10 minutes or so later, Ricketts had scored a second himself to leave the Reds with one foot in the last four.
If Ricketts’ contribution to the second goal was more tangible, his part in the first was no less significant. On first glance, the Canadian’s sole involvement seems to be to take a swipe at the loose ball in the box only to miss it completely before it bounces to Jozy Altidore, but his presence changes Toronto’s attack in two ways.
Firstly, it drops Sebastian Giovinco back into an attacking midfield position behind the two strikers. Vanney is right not to necessarily see this as a way to start games - it could create too much of a gap between midfield and attack and, more obviously, withdraws the most effective forward in MLS to a position further away from the goal. Late in games, however, it can force opposition teams to reorganise their marking of Giovinco and allow him to find some space in front of a deep-lying defence.
Secondly, it also creates more space for Altidore. When Giovinco is Altidore’s partner, it is the latter’s job to provide a physical presence that occupies defenders and helps his team-mate escape close marking. When Ricketts comes on, he is capable of taking over those duties.
The end result is a situation in which Giovinco follows the ball out to the edge of the box, returns it - with the help of a lucky deflection or two - to a dangerous area and Ricketts draws defenders into a battle in the six-yard box, allowing Altidore to crush the loose ball that emerges from the scrum into the roof of the net.
In a very similar situation, with Giovinco the creator and Ricketts adding to Altidore’s presence in the box, Toronto salvaged a 2-2 draw against the Montreal Impact late in the regular season. Ricketts is also making an impact out of possession; it was his pressure on a New York defender that saw the Reds win the ball and work it back into the box for the Edmonton native to score a potentially decisive second goal.
“He’s like a secret weapon, though not much secret anymore,” Vanney said. “His speed and relentless running... the last thing you want to do as a tired defender is to chase that guy. If you get in a footrace, you’re sure to lose it.
“It's great to have a guy who you can turn to who has that kind of mentality and that kind of pace.”
Toronto have the luxury of being at full strength for this season’s playoffs, and that has given Vanney options - namely Ricketts, Johnson, Cheyrou and Marky Delgado - on the bench that he may not have expected to have. It is also testament to the front office that they did not rest on their laurels with Toronto riding high at the top of the Eastern Conference and went out to acquire Ricketts and Armando Cooper.
It has all served to make the Reds an even more potent offensive team than ever. One Toronto goal in New York will leave the hosts needing to score four to stay in the tie; if their record of 10 goals in four games since Giovinco’s return is anything to go by, the Reds’ advantage is effectively three.