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Toronto FC control their fate in Eastern heavyweight battle

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The Red Bulls come to town on Sunday for a true clash of the titans; first place, and a guaranteed playoff berth, are on the line for TFC.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC returns home to BMO Field on Sunday with the wind once again at their backs. Having exorcised their demons in Toyota Park, beating the Chicago Fire 2-1, the Reds now find themselves in the driver's seat of the Eastern Conference.

When the New York Red Bulls come to town this weekend, TFC will be completely in control of their own destiny. Quite simply, a win will guarantee them a playoff spot for just the second time in franchise history, with five games left to lock up first place.

A draw, too, could see the Reds punch their ticket to the playoffs, but to the players, three points is far more important than clinching. A win would bring them closer to securing top spot in the conference, which would grant them the first home playoff game in franchise history.

The Red Bulls will not go down easily, of course. Currently second place in the Eastern Conference, they're just two points behind TFC. They have a fifteen-game unbeaten streak running after Thursday's victory over Alianza in the CONCACAF Champions League, and have a hot lineup featuring current MLS scoring leader Bradley Wright-Phillips (18 goals).

TFC has played the Red Bulls twice already this season, both in New York. Toronto came away with a 2-0 victory in March, but New York pullled one back in May as they beat the Reds 3-0.

New York hasn't been a strong road team this year, only 2-7-6 away from Red Bull Arena, and may struggle going into the fortress that BMO Field has become (apart from the egregious hiccup against Montreal). Nonetheless, they're a formidable opponent for Toronto FC. Captain Dax McCarty should be fully fit for a return in midfield, and along with Felipe Martins he will cause a lot of trouble for TFC's attack down the centre of the pitch.

Having played just three days before in the CCL, some of the New York players that will feature in both games may be a little slower on Sunday, without the rest that TFC has enjoyed. The Red Bulls have been known to slip up late in games this season, being killed on late goals off of silly mistakes. Toronto has a lot of offensive firepower, some of which can be put into the game late to take advantage of the tired opposition.

In fact, it's possible that TFC's greatest weapon will be used in exactly that role on Sunday. Sebastian Giovinco, out since suffering an injury August 27, is listed as day-to-day and could be named to the squad. If so, he'd be more likely to feature as a sub and would be quite capable of tearing apart the Red Bull defence late in the game, especially if the Reds are in need of a goal.

With Toronto FC struggling with injuries, the time seems ripe for Armando Cooper to make his first start. He could feature on the right side of the standard midfield diamond, with pace and offensive ability that will help - in small part - fill the void left by Giovinco's absence. Marky Delgado has fallen off a little bit the last couple of games, which perfectly opens up the spot for Cooper.

Jonathan Osorio did a commendable job at the head of the midfield diamond last weekend, and Will Johnson put in a solid shift as well so it seems unlikely either will be swapped out. Benoit Cheyrou might deserve a spot in the lineup, but he'll have to win one as a substitute for now.

With Tosaint Ricketts ruled out for Sunday, TFC's options for a striker to play with Jozy Altidore are thinned even further. Jordan Hamilton may get the nod here, and as a player who can win aerial battles and string through passes can complement Altidore well.

The major lineup question for Greg Vanney, though, is who will start in goal. As seen above, he's chosen a starting keeper, but whether that's Clint Irwin or Alex Bono remains to be seen. Irwin, the unquestioned first choice prior to his injury, has been healthy for a couple of weeks now, but Vanney has been very impressed by the rookie Bono's performances. The coach went as far as to say the win in Chicago last weekend was his best of the season, so the scales may be tipped in Bono's favour.

In summary, this game is arguably the most important of the season so far for both teams. Each side has so much to gain over each other from winning, and as such the weight of the occasion is not lost on anyone.

A brief PSA to fans attending or watching the game: kickoff has been pushed forward to 5 pm EST.

Projected Starting XI