When asked what he had to do to win the midfield battle against Patrice Bernier, who tormented Toronto FC in the MLS playoffs last season, when the Reds face the Montreal Impact in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final, Jonathan Osorio answered bluntly: “Play hard.”
“Last time, they came out and they just played way harder than us, last year,” he added. “We’re gonna have to step it up and put the intensity on them, the pressure on them. We know now how it feels and what it takes to win a playoff game. We know the type of pressure and intensity you have to bring. That’s all we’ll have to do.”
This Toronto team is a year older and certainly wiser for the experiences, both positive and negative, of the last 12 months. But while it is true that Montreal swept the Reds away last year by blowing out of the blocks at a speed - and intensity, as Osorio put it - that their opponents could not keep up with, Toronto had a number of more fundamental problems that saw them come up short.
As notable as any of those was the composition of their midfield. Osorio was out on the left of a four-man unit that day, with Benoit Cheyrou and Michael Bradley playing centrally and Robbie Findley on the right. Montreal, lining up in the 4-3-3 formation they will field again on Tuesday, overmatched Toronto and played right through the middle of them. Marco Donadel and Nigel Reo-Coker took on Bradley and Cheyrou and Bernier was free to roam wherever he wished, registering a goal and an assist.
This time it will be different, and Osorio will play a central role - both literally and figuratively.
Greg Vanney’s first move in reshaping his midfield after that humbling was to commit to Bradley in a deep-lying, more defensive role. “I never really believed Michael was an out-and-out attacking midfielder,” Vanney told the Sun in August. “He gives you energy and can cover ground and all that stuff, but Michael likes to receive the ball facing forward.”
While Bradley is capable of getting around the pitch, he is more effective when he doesn’t have to - as has been evidenced by the dramatic contrast of late between his form with Toronto and for the USA. In addition to his ability to be the foundation of attacking moves, when Bradley starts from a position in front of the defence he is able pick the right moments in which to step up and be more aggressive without leaving the men behind him exposed.
Deciding to withdraw Bradley to that deeper role, however, left vacancies in the orthodox central midfield positions to fill - a situation exacerbated by Cheyrou’s advancing years and mounting injury problems.
Toronto had some internal candidates waiting to step up. Jay Chapman, Daniel Lovitz and Marky Delgado have all enjoyed increased playing time this season, while Tsubasa Endoh has added depth out of the draft. To complement that youth, Will Johnson was picked up in free agency and has been everything the Reds hoped and expected he would be.
None of them, however, now find themselves in the starting lineup at crunch time. Instead, a pairing of Osorio and Armando Cooper has turned Toronto’s midfield from good to great, acting as the engine that has driven this team to a playoff record of three wins from three games with 10 goals scored and just one conceded.
Osorio is playing as well as we have seen all year at the right time, with two goals in three playoff games and another in the final match of the regular season. Vanney’s switch to a 3-5-2 formation has played a significant part in that; Osorio is something like Paul Pogba and Steven Gerrard - in style, it goes without saying, more than ability - in that he is neither a natural sitting midfielder nor a number 10, but something in between, needing to be involved in play before it reaches the final third but not restrained by defensive responsibilities.
He primarily played as a 10, just off Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, in Toronto’s 4-4-2 diamond setup but that restricted his ability to take the ball on the half-turn and run into space. Osorio thinks and reacts quickly enough to operate in congested areas around the box but he is more effective when he has picked up a head of steam from a deeper starting position, and plays more instinctively as a result.
Cooper is different and complementary. The August loan signing - whose will surely become a Toronto player on a permanent basis at the end of the season - possesses a combination of creativity on the ball and bite off it that make him the perfect middle man; someone who can soak up pressure by sitting deeper alongside Bradley and apply it by joining Osorio in support of the forwards. To the naked eye, Cooper is a technical, skilled player, but he had six tackles in the first leg of the New York City tie and three by half-time of the second, when he was substituted to avoid a suspension.
One thing Osorio and Cooper have in common that is more valuable than ever in the hectic, high-intensity environment of the playoffs is an ability to wriggle out of situations in which they are at risk of turning the ball over. It has previously helped Osorio - who, it is no surprise to learn, started playing futsal when he was four - to craft out chances but now, equally importantly, is enabling him to relieve pressure on the defence by carrying the ball out of his own half.
In front of at least 55,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night, the ability of Osorio, Cooper and all of Toronto’s players to play with focus and accuracy under pressure will be tested as much as it has ever been. This year, they are better equipped to come through that test with their MLS Cup hopes still intact.