In the match preview for last Sunday's 2-0 Toronto FC win, I wrote that all the pressure was on the opposing New York City FC. I take it back. Now all the pressure is on NYC.
Quite simply, the task facing New York City this Sunday at Yankee Stadium is far greater than the one ahead of TFC. The Reds have given themselves a significant leg up; not only did they take a two-goal lead in the aggregate score for this Eastern Conference semifinal, they also kept a clean sheet at home. If Toronto manages to score a goal in Sunday's game, NYC will need at least four to advance.
The problem, though, is that MLS has no better venue for chaos than Yankee Stadium. The pitch is 110 by 70 yards, the smallest allowed by FIFA. On such a narrow field, pretty much everywhere is midfield. That suits NYC, who tend to like playing through the middle.
There will be very limited space for TFC's players to be creative with the ball, and wing-favouring players like Justin Morrow may find themselves running out of room fairly often. NYC will be doing everything in their power to shut down that play on the flanks that worked so well for the Reds last weekend.
If there's any team in MLS that can't be counted out when two goals down, it's New York City. They've scored 62 times this season, more than any other team. Granted, they've also conceded 57 times (fourth-worst in the league), but the firewagon style is fine when you have players like David Villa to do the scoring for you.
As mentioned above, though, defence is perhaps now more important than it ever has been for NYC. They cannot afford to let TFC score, and they've shown in the past they have trouble with that. They can certainly score, but if they let someone like Sebastian Giovinco rip them to shreds defensively it'll all be for naught.
As such, the momentum is very heavily behind Toronto FC right now. This will be the first MLS playoff game at Yankee Stadium, yet it's hard to imagine the crowd will be into it from the get-go. The home team will need an early goal to wake up their fans.
It seems that TFC will not be making that easy, though. Their players are probably more fired up than they've ever been, now on a three-game winning streak. Despite having a lead, they still have a chip on their shoulder, with the news coming this week that MLS thought David Villa deserved to be suspended for this match, but let him off because he'll help their TV numbers.
This is sure to be a fiery game. NYCFC fouled Toronto 19 times last weekend, and picked up five yellow cards. MLS may not be willing to ban one of their marquee players, but a free kick at the edge of the box for Sebastian Giovinco could kill the home team. If things are bleak for NYC near the end of the match, they won't be worrying about their players sitting on a yellow missing the next game. They showed at the end of last Sunday's game that they have no problem with trying to provoke TFC's players into being booked.
Armando Cooper, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore have all picked up a yellow card in the playoffs, and would be suspended for their next game should they pick up another.
At BMO Field last weekend, TFC won an astounding 77 aerial duels, to NYCFC's 39. They also had two thirds of the game's successful tackles, and had seven more shots than the visitors. In most one-on-one situations, a TFC player (usually Bradley, to be completely honest) came away with the ball.
The major question for Greg Vanney heading into this one is whether or not to keep his formation intact. TFC are 3-0 since switching to a 3-5-2 lineup, with better centre back communication (thank you Drew Moor) and more freedom to join the attack for Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. However, on a field like Yankee Stadium's, it may not make sense to play such a wide formation. The 3-5-2 is more defensive, but benefits of a wide midfield will be effectively neutralized, and may even contribute to the congestion.
Vanney could make the switch back to the 4-4-2 midfield diamond he favoured throughout most of this year. If it was any normal game, he probably would. However, at a time like this it's incredibly risky to mess with something that's been working. TFC were slumping hard prior to the switch, and have looked so much better in the past three games.
In a critical situation like this, Vanney doesn't seem like the type of person to tinker with what's going well. Everyone from the first leg is fully fit, so the lineup is probably going to remain the same.
The Reds won't have the electric atmosphere that spurred them on last weekend, but they will have the two-goal lead it gave them. All they need to do on Sunday is stick to the script, and find space for Giovinco and Altidore. If TFC score, especially if they score first, it'll be all but over for New York City.
Projected Starting XI: