After what has seemed like a long wait for the end of another international break, the new week will bring the much-anticipated return of the MLS playoffs.
Toronto FC take on the Montreal Impact at the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night in the first leg of their all-Canadian contest to be the last team standing out of the Eastern Conference. The Impact saw off the conference’s top team in the regular season, the New York Red Bulls, to reach the last four for the first time in club history.
They will present Toronto with their sternest test yet having been beaten just once in their last seven games. Here are three things the Reds must do to return to Ontario with the upper hand ahead of the second leg at BMO Field.
1. Stop Ignacio Piatti
Easier said than done. Much like Sebastian Giovinco, Piatti is an excellent player who is even more effective than he might usually be as a consequence of having a team built around his strengths. He receives a regular supply of long passes from Marco Donadel and short ones from Hernan Bernardello. Dominic Oduro uses his pace to pin defences back, while Matteo Mancosu acts as an athletic central target. Patrice Bernier offers a passing option and decoy runs.
The withdrawal of Didier Drogba from the starting lineup has only helped Piatti, who was always the star of the show in practice anyway. Toronto fans will be familiar with the threat he poses by now; his intelligent movement between the lines, his elusiveness on the ball and his deadly accuracy when shooting across goal on his right foot.
There is reason to be hopeful, however, that Toronto’s 3-5-2 formation might be a better shape in terms of dealing with Piatti than their 4-4-2 diamond. The latter, with its flat back four, exposed right-back Steven Beitashour to the full force of Piatti’s powers. As a wing-back, Beitashour will be able to confront Piatti higher up the pitch in the knowledge the rest of the defence can shift into a back four behind him.
As much as the structure can play a part, however, Toronto will need Beitashour, Eriq Zavaleta and Michael Bradley to have strong individual games and remain on constant alert. If there is one weak link, you can bet Piatti will detect it.
2. Don’t be too scared of the counter
Montreal are a counter-attacking team. They sit relatively deep, draw opponents upfield and then hurt them on the break by springing their attacking trident of Piatti, Mancosu and Oduro. Sometimes, Piatti will even drop deeper to supply his two fellow forwards with the ball.
Toronto will be well aware of the threat the Impact pose on the break, but they cannot fear it to the extent that it stops them playing the aggressive, positive game that ended New York City’s season. Yes, this is not leg two at Yankee Stadium, where TFC had a two-goal cushion and knew one more would seal it. A 0-0 draw would not be a terrible result.
But Montreal’s conference semi-final win over the New York Red Bulls was not entirely a case of the Red Bulls falling into a trap. They started the game on the front foot and had chances, and had Bradley Wright-Phillips been a little more clinical we could now be talking about a very different tie.
Eventually, the Red Bulls were punished for their profligacy, but that should not deter a Toronto side boasting the best strike partnership in MLS - especially given the value of away goals.
3. Keep that chip on your shoulder
It has seemed like this Toronto team has received some new motivation to prove the world wrong every week of late.
First there was the blanket snub from any of MLS’ end-of-season award shortlists, including Giovinco’s absence in the MVP category. Then there was the league’s decision not to suspend David Villa during the conference semi-finals. Most recently, Giovinco has been excluded from the Italy squad for no particular reason and Bradley has faced criticism for his performances with the USA.
It has all, metaphorically if not literally, been pinned up on the locker-room wall. Bradley, in particular, has demonstrated why he is the captain of this team by maintaining a focus that has rubbed off on his team-mates. Drew Moor has been unflappable on and off the pitch and Jonathan Osorio, the local boy desperate to bring home a championship, exudes passion for the cause.
The latest attempt to upset them involves a turf pitch and around 60,000 fans, approximately 98% of whom will be willing them to lose. So far, they have achieved the perfect balance between using these factors to stoke the fire inside while not losing sight of what they are here for.