TORONTO, Ont.–On Wednesday night, 2017 MLS Cup champions Toronto FC play the 2018 MLS Cup champions Atlanta United FC for the right to play in the 2019 MLS Cup Finals as the Eastern Conference representative.
Under the lights at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the two best franchises in the Eastern Conference over the past half-decade go head-to-head, and below, we take a look at some potential keys towards victory for TFC over their rivals from the dirty south:
Ignite the beast in Oso
Back during the Edmonton Oilers’ glory days in the 80s, the job of Gretzky and Messier et al. was to go and score goals, however, equally important to their success was the play of Esa Tikkanen.
Tikannen’s job was to find the best player on the other team, shadow him, hound him, and frustrate him to the point of irrelevance. To paraphrase head coach Glen Sather, Esa’s job was to follow the other player up and down the ice, and if the player went to take a crap, he wanted Esa in the stall with him.
In this regard, Osorio may be the perfect foil for the job to mark Josef Martinez up and down the pitch. While Marky Delgado seems to be the more defensively complete player, Osorio has the build and temperament to be a far more effective pest. Get into Josef’s personal space; hound him; be physical; bump him every chance you get; and, make life extremely uncomfortable for the prolific striker for 90 minutes.
If you can take Martinez out of the game, Atlanta’s vicious offence becomes far more docile.
Make Pogba work
While the elder Florentin Pogba — brother of Manchester United’s Paul Pogba — may be an effective defender in the middle of the pitch, Philadelphia was able to make some incursions into the attacking third and the 18-yard box once Pogba was asked to make movements against horizontal attacks.
Toronto FC has found some magic with Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh bringing speed down the wings to match the more mercurial and calculated approach of Alejandro Pozeulo. By having Benezet and Endoh start wide, and then make runs behind and beside Pogba, Toronto FC may find attacking gaps for Pozuelo to exploit either for himself or for his wingers.
The key to this attack is allowing both Benzet and Endoh to come into the central portion of the pitch at times, so as to keep Atlanta’s midfielders guessing, as well as tighter and less inclined to join the offensive attack.
Let Omar Gonzalez play free safety
One of the noticeable things from Atlanta’s playoff run is their counter-attack: they let the opposition possess the ball, drawing them forward and into their attacking third, until they can gain a quick dispossession and then play an aerial ball over the top to Jozef Martinez or Pity Martinez for the counter strike.
What better way to negate this aerial attack than to let the 6’5 Omar Gonzalez play a more roaming role in the defence and go up for 50/50 balls against the 5’6 attacking players.
Allowing Omar to roam a bit more freer around the pitch requires a balancing act from Chris Mavinga and Michael Bradley to immediately plug the gaps that he vacates, but the defensive acumen of both those players should allow this system to work reliably. While I would still keep Osorio in a shadowing position on Martinez for most of the game, at some point, he will need to join the TFC attacking rush, and in order to prevent the quick counter over the top, Omar is the best version of a no fly zone that Toronto FC can offer.
While Atlanta United is by far the most formidable team that Toronto FC will face during this playoff run, they certainly are beatable, and can be taken by a team with physical strength down the middle and speed down the wings. It will be a tall order, but certainly one Toronto FC is designed to overcome and conquer.
Who knows, maybe the game will be so enjoyable that TFC players may even enjoy a nice cold beer down towards the Atlanta goal line. It’s a bit of a TFC tradition after all.