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The biggest test of the 2019 season: Toronto FC at NYCFC preview

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The Reds roll into the Bronx confident, yet cautious

MLS: New York City FC at Toronto FC
Toronto FC midfielder Nick DeLeon (18) dribbles past New York City FC forward Jonathan Lewis (17) at BMO Field
(Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

TORONTO, Ont. — Unbeaten in their last seven matches (in all competitions) and playing some of their best soccer in a long spell, Toronto FC rolls into the Bronx Wednesday evening, looking to make a statement against the current leaders of the Eastern Conference.

If you’re into symmetry, the Reds actually haven’t lost since they played away to that other New York club, the one that actually plays in New Jersey.

Toronto enters the midweek clash fresh off a 5-1 thumping of the league’s bottom feeders Cincinnati FC, however, the Reds know they’ll be in for a much bigger test on Wednesday.

“I think you have take into consideration that you’re playing an opposition who has less to play for,” said Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney after the win Saturday night. “They’re trying some things — trying out some different guys. It’s a game that we wanted to get on top of and create doubt for the opposition.”

This time around, expect Toronto FC to take a more reserved approach to the away fixture, giving some well-earned respect to their opponents New York City FC, who’ve lost just one game at Yankee Stadium this season.

Toronto’s hoping that they’ll be able to build off their earlier result against the Boys in Blue this season when Alejandro Pozuelo’s debut brace — including an outrageous Paneka — helped lift TFC easily past NYCFC 4-0 in the reverse fixture at BMO Field on Mar 29.

The Reds are also hoping the decision to rest Jozy Altidore on that Cincy turf pays dividends after the striker missed the team’s previous match against New England with a thigh injury. Altidore, a New Jersey native, has fared well against the cityzens, notching four goals and one assist in six starts against New York City.

NYCFC, meanwhile, enters the game as the hottest team in MLS, currently riding a five-game win streak. In their last outing on Saturday at home versus New England, the hosts managed to squeak away with an eventful 2-1 win after an early red card and 96th minute penalty (both reviewed by VAR) swayed the game in New York’s favour.

And despite having seven players called up for International duty — and already clinching an MLS playoff spot — NYCFC coach Dome Torrent, who has worked closely with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola over the years, insists that he’ll be trying to play his strongest starting XI down the stretch.

“My experience about that is in the last two months, you have to play the best players,” Torrent told Pro Soccer USA. “Every single moment.

“Especially with the change in the playoff system, it’s very important for us to finish in the first position or the second position and have a knockout game. It’s very important to play at home.”

You can still expect New York to come out strong, but if there were any time for the Reds to play the league’s hottest team — especially with Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Omar Gonzalez remaining with TFC through this International stretch — it’d be now.

USA national team coach Gregg Berhalter elected not to call up the Toronto trio last month, citing the MLS scheduling clash and the fact that the Reds are looking to climb the standings.

Speaking of standings, with a win in New York, Toronto could leap from sixth place all the way up to fourth place in the Eastern Conference — something that was unthinkable just over a month ago. The Reds currently trail New York Red Bulls thanks to the wins tie-breaker, and are four points clear of the eighth-place Montreal Impact.

And with only four matches remaining after Wednesday night’s fixture, the MLS playoff race is starting to come down to the wire. If Toronto can manage to get a result away from BMO Field Wednesday night, it would be a significant statement to the rest of the East.

Predicted Starting XI

TFC coach Greg Vanney turned a few heads when he opted to start midfielder Nick DeLeon at RB for the first time this season, but the move paid off. Against a rather lackluster Cincinnati FC side, DeLeon was able to play in a more advanced role, providing the Reds with another attacking option moving forward.

With Richie Laryea (International) and Justin Morrow (Injury) still absent, it’ll be interesting to see if Vanney elects to once again stick with the attack-minded DeLeon at fullback against a stronger NYCFC side, or opts to go with a more traditional defender in Ashtone Morgan.

Moving forward, expect Toronto’s midfield and attack to remain virtually the same, with the insertion of Altidore for Patrick Mullins up top. Vanney said that Toronto FC’s new attacking trio behind Jozy — Alejandro Pozuelo, Nicolas Benezet, and Erickson Gallardo — are beginning to look a lot more comfortable together, however, it is important to note that Gallardo has yet to play a full 90 minutes in a TFC uniform.

He started on Saturday, meaning there’s a chance we see Gallardo come off the bench in the Big Apple.

Here’s our full predicted starting XI:

Predicted Lineup: Toronto FC @ New York City FC — Sept. 11, 2019
(Jeffrey P. Nesker/WTR)