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MLS is Back Preview: Familiar foes TFC and NYCFC face off in Round of 16 action

Group C winners, Toronto FC, look to advance at the MLS is Back Tournament against Eastern Conference Rivals.

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC
Toronto FC begin round of 16 action on Sunday night.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO, Canada—After a dull 0-0 draw with the New England Revolution and thanks to a 1-0 Montreal Impact win, Toronto FC is preparing itself for the knockout stage of the MLS is Back Tournament as the Group C winners. The Reds will take the field in Round of 16 action on Sunday night against New York City FC. Kickoff is set for 8:30 pm.

In something of a rarity at this tournament, Toronto and NYCFC will meet each other for the second time this season, having already faced off once in 2020. The two clubs met in Toronto back in March during the Reds home opener, where the home side walked away with a hard fought 1-0 victory through an Achara winner.

After Tuesday’s match against the Revs, Alex Bono, who had a rare start in the TFC goal, applauded the mental strength of the Reds:

The difficulties TFC have had in closing out matches have been talked about ad nauseam. In two of the three matches at the MLS is Back Tournament, the Reds have given up injury time goals—once to D.C. United, which helped the undermanned United to a draw, and a late goal to Montreal that made the ending a little bit more uncomfortable for Greg Vanney’s side. Thanks to a big save from Bono on Tuesday, the Reds were able to hang onto a much needed clean sheet, which ultimately helped Toronto secure top spot in Group C.

Greg Vanney rotated his squad during the final group stage, however, most key players did keep their place in the squad. As the game wore on, some of the Reds looked as though the tough tournament schedule and the Florida heat were taking a toll. Vanney will be hoping that four days of rest, hanging by the pool and a bit of golf, will help his team get some much needed energy in their legs.

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The extra days off will also mean there’s a real possibility we’ll see Jonathan Osorio feature for the Reds. Osorio and Jozy Altidore are both notable Reds who have missed some time during this tournament, but thanks to Ayo Akinola’s hot goal scoring streak, TFC have been able to survive without their lead talisman. Altidore did feature on Tuesday morning, and instantly showed his quality.

Vanney opted for a two striker set with Altidore’s introduction, pairing Altidore and Akinola up top, but will likely revert back to just the one striker as TFC take to the field on Sunday. While the more experienced Altidore did look good in his return, Vanney will likely opt for what’s worked so far and stick with Akinola in the starting eleven.

Osorio’s absence, however, has had a much bigger impact on the TFC midfield. His directness and link up play between midfield and forward has been sorely missed.

While Alejandro Pozuelo has been brilliant so far, his five assists a testament to that, and Pablo Piatti fitting in well with the Reds offence, being able to add a skill player like Osorio is only going to free those attacking players more, creating even more chances for this potent Toronto offence.

Greg Vanney seems hopeful of Osorio’s return to the squad. Speaking after Tuesday morning’s match, the TFC head coach was confident Osorio would be ready for the next match.

“Now our games move to night, we’re getting our legs underneath us, Jozy [Altidore] is getting back into the fold, [Jonathan] Osorio should be ready for the next game, so the team continues to build,” Vanney told reporters after the match. “And that’s what these events are about, especially when they’re coming off of four months of doing nothing.”

The perks of winning Group C means that TFC are paired with New York City, the third Wild Card team. The Blues have not had the tournament they were hoping for when they arrived in Florida.

NYCFC lost their opening two games of the MLS is Back Tournament to the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City 1-0 and 3-1, respectively. Dating back to the start of the MLS season, NYCFC have now only managed one win in four outings - their only win came in the group stage finale against MLS newcomers, Inter Miami. Safe to say that the Blues aren’t coming into the knockout stage on a high.

There is enough evidence to suggest that the Reds are well equipped to deal with New York City FC. The Blues have been a high flying team in the past, but TFC have had an answer for them most of the time, especially at key moments. The two have squared off in the MLS Cup Playoffs on a couple of occasions, and TFC have disposed of the Blues in both instances, including last year’s Conference Semi-Finals.

While TFC may be the more confident team heading into Sunday, tournament play means all the good will the Reds built up in the group stage doesn’t mean much. It’s one game and it can all come down to a shootout so Vanney’s men will have to be wary of not looking past New York City FC just yet.

Additional Notes

  • Tuesday’s draw means Toronto FC unbeaten streak now stands at 15 games. Their last loss came in a 2-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls in August 2019.
  • Something to watch for: should TFC and NYCFC be tied after 90 mins, the game will head straight to a shootout.
  • Jozy Altidore’s appearance on Tuesday was his 142nd appearance for the club, 6th most in TFC history (tied with Sebastian Giovinco).

How to Watc:h:

Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. EST on Sunday night, and those in Canada can watch on TSN.

Michael Singh will have your Game Thread up right here before the match, so make sure you come ready to chime in.