TORONTO, Ont.—I’m unsure if there’s ever been any real explanation as to why, but for whatever reason, certain players tend to step up in big games.
Whether it’s an innate character trait, a physical difference, or just sheer mental toughness, some people shine naturally when they’re under the spotlight. And Wednesday night, when Toronto FC and Atlanta United FC take the pitch in front of 70,000 screaming fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final, the stage will be set for yet another big-game player to steal the show.
With that said, here’s a look at three candidates from Toronto FC to keep an eye on vs. Atlanta United.
While writing my introduction to this piece, I thought about TFC midfielder Jonathan Osorio’s presence to draw inspiration.
Having graduated from Toronto FC’s academy in 2013, Osorio understands what it means to win in Toronto. One of the few regulars remaining from their triumph in 2017, the 27-year-old plays with his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to show his emotions. While he may rub some the wrong way with his outspoken confidence, Osorio won’t hesitate to dive into a tackle for his team; he’s the type of player you hate playing against, but you love to have on your side. Oh, and did I mention that he’s pretty good too?
That cele says it all.
In his seventh season with Toronto FC, Osorio has once again come alive at the perfect time. The Canadian international — fresh off a historic win over the United States with Canada’s Men’s National Team — has found the back of the net twice and added and one assist in the Reds’ two MLS Cup Playoffs matches thus far while locking down the heart of the midfield beside captain Michael Bradley and Marky Delgado.
Look for an inspiring performance tonight from Oso.
Waking the Red’s Tej Sahota has a great piece up on a strategy TFC could depoloy surrounding Osorio that could give them the edge, here.
While he wasn’t overly busy in Toronto FC’s first-round playoff match against D.C. United, when his number was called upon, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg came up big, stopping England’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney three times and turning aside an Ola Kamara breakaway over the course of the match.
Against New York City FC, Westberg was even better — especially in the second half — surviving several offensive onslaughts while the Reds narrowly hung on, eventually leading to a special moment from the penalty spot by Alejandro Pozuelo.
The Reds’ netminder has been stellar of late; it’s great to know that you can not only count on Westberg’s ability to comfortably be an outlet at the back with his feet, but you can also count on the former PSG youth academy goalie to bail your team out.
For more on Westberg, Waking the Red’s Gianluca Lia has a great piece up on the goalkeeper’s emergence with TFC below.
Two substitute appearances. One penalty won. One goal.
Richie Laryea has been a spark for Toronto FC in his first ever MLS Cup Playoffs, providing a much needed injection of pace, energy, and willingness to get forward. Since Auro Jr. has been superb at RB for the Reds, Laryea has found himself coming off the bench where the 24-year-old has the made the most of his 51 minutes of game action.
Like most of Toronto FC, Laryea will run his opponents into the ground. The sight of his fresh legs warming up on the touchline is torture to opposing wing backs who just played a grueling 45+ minutes of high-intensity football.
However, most importantly to coach Greg Vanney and co., Laryea’s emergence creates some flexibility. If the Reds are ahead, they can shore up their defense by bringing on the the defender for Tsubasa Endoh on the right wing while not giving up an incredible amount offensively. If TFC are down, Laryea can come on for either Auro Jr. or Justin Morrow — like he did against NYCFC — and provide a spark moving forward from right back.
Look for the Canadian international to once again come off the bench for Greg Vanney Wednesday night, regardless of the score.