The goal is clear for Toronto FC on Wednesday night when they host the Montreal Impact. Win (and don’t let the Impact score more than once), and the MLS Cup will be played at BMO Field. Any other result, and they’re out.
TFC salvaged the first leg of the Eastern Conference final last Tuesday by scoring two critical away goals at the Olympic Stadium. A 3-2 result after going down 3-0 felt almost like a victory to the players and travelling fans. The team had no business being in this fixture, but now they have a glorious second chance.
BMO Field will be more electric than it has ever been on Wednesday, with temporary seating expanding its capacity to 35,000. Home field has been huge for the Reds, who have an 8-3-6 record at their Lakeshore fortress this year as well as two emotional playoff wins over Philadelphia and New York City.
TFC have been just as solid at home against Montreal historically, with an all-time record of 7-1-4. That one loss, though, was at a critical time in this season at the end of August and send Toronto on a slide that they recovered from just in time for the playoffs.
The Impact have, therefore, managed to silence the BMO crowd once before, and fairly recently. They haven’t seen the playoff atmosphere, though.
Many different factors will impact this game. The weather will be much more of an issue than it was last Tuesday under the Big O’s roof. Wednesday will be a chilly night, around 5°C, and it’s likely to rain. As well, the conditions of the grass at BMO are a major wildcard, with Sunday’s Grey Cup causing concerns as to the state of the pitch.
TFC’s grounds crew have assured fans that the field will be in top condition by kickoff, but the concern remains.
Fortunately for the Reds, difficult weather could actually work in their favour against a team like Montreal. The Impact reminded everyone last week that they score goals with a fast counter-attack, and frustrate the opposition by defending ferociously.
All the external factors at play on Tuesday—the rain, the wind, divots in the pitch—will serve to slow the game down. If Montreal bunkers down from the beginning, as they are bound to do, they’ll be in tough to get down the field fast enough on the counter to score.
Considering how lethal an early TFC goal would be for Montreal, Mauro Biello’s side will almost certainly park the bus right from the start. Toronto will certainly have opportunities, so the question will be whether or not they’re able to break through.
Greg Vanney’s 3-5-2 formation has served his team well since the start of the playoffs, but for the first time there’s some doubt as to whether he’ll stick with the same lineup for this do-or-die game. Both Will Johnson and Tosaint Ricketts changed the course of the game when they came on in Montreal, and there’s some whispering that one or both could get the start on Wednesday.
Ricketts was perhaps most able to break through the Impact defence, but his speed and creativity may be better suited to a super-sub role. He can take advantage of a tired opposition after they’ve survived an hour or so of TFC’s attack.
Johnson, on the other hand, seems a better candidate to start. He would replace either Jonathan Osorio or Armando Cooper, neither of whom had particularly good games in the first leg. Cooper had quite a few defensive lapses despite making a handful of key tackles in the first leg of the New York City tie.
As for the formation, Vanney could well decide that 3-5-2 is not the best way to break down Montreal’s bunker. This season, the Impact counter-attack has been most effectively stifled by teams that play a 4-2-3-1, including TFC when they won 4-2 in the Canadian Championship in June.
A holding-midfielder tandem of Johnson and Michael Bradley could be quite effective, and would give the Reds more options to defend in midfield. Both Cooper and Osorio could also stay in the lineup that way, with only two centre-backs required. Sebastian Giovinco has played better recently when Ricketts has come on, pushing him back into the number 10 role, so he may be able to make up for an off night in Montreal by starting as an attacking midfielder.
This will be a bitter game, and it definitely won’t be a particularly beautiful one. All signs point to it being a sluggish, low-scoring affair. Nevertheless, it might be the most highly-anticipated game in TFC’s history, and all they need is an early goal to make it a memorable night.
Again, the objective is clear. Just. Win.