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Toronto FC have no room for doubt against the Columbus Crew

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The Reds must own the moments this tie will rest on.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

They’re very close now.

Toronto FC have one road game, one home game and then, all being well, another at BMO Field left between them and a first MLS Cup.

No player or staff member at the Kia Training Ground this week was going to look past Tuesday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference final against the Columbus Crew for even a fraction of a second, but I can.

And they’re really close.

In that sense it becomes tempting to look at the final road trip of the year, which may be the biggest hurdle they have left to overcome, in terms of survival: come back to Toronto relatively unscathed and the path to the Cup is clear.

You want to win, sure, but a draw would be fine. If you score, even better.

Keep it tight, take advantage of the fact that Columbus do not bury teams like they did New York City FC on a regular basis and, if you catch them on an off day, pick them off on the counter-attack.

“There's no doubt they'll be motivated and feel like the fact we're playing without [Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore] is a good thing for them,” Michael Bradley said on Sunday.

“But if they are so aggressive and throw caution to the wind, then our ability to play on the counter-attack and our ability to use the space they give us and really punish them… I think we've shown to be quite good at [that].”

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t want to go too far down that road, though; if Toronto are entirely passive but Columbus play well and do not give them many errors to capitalize on, the Reds will be on the ropes.

TFC won’t do that - they haven’t approached a single game that way all season, regardless of injuries, suspensions or international call-ups.

So while Bradley will be happy to take any counter-attacking opportunities Columbus offer his team, he will also be expecting to dictate the tempo and the terms of the match from the base of midfield.

“There’s so much talk about the playoff format and how the higher seeds don’t get enough of an advantage,” Bradley continued.

“But in many cases the higher seeds don’t do enough in the first game to then come back home still having an advantage. That’s on you.”

Toronto will take encouragement from the fact that before the Crew took apart NYCFC in their most recent game at Mapfre Stadium, they gifted the visitors a number of opportunities to score that they didn’t take.

The plan, then, will be to find the right balance between avoiding errors and unnecessary risks and showing a bold enough sense of adventure to ask a few questions of an imperfect Columbus back line.

All while making sure the game moves at a pace and is played in areas of the field Toronto are comfortable with.

Sounds simple, right?

It’s far from it, of course, and even if Toronto can pull all of that off successfully they will still not necessarily be home and dry.

This is the MLS playoffs, after all, and they have a habit of laying waste to the most meticulous of plans.

Whether it is questionable refereeing, a bad bounce or deflection or some off-the-ball shenanigans - or all three, as was the case against the New York Red Bulls - these games and this time of year have a habit of magnifying the variables Toronto can’t completely control.

Just playing well isn’t enough: TFC must execute their game plan better than Columbus do and do everything in their power to get on the right side of those big, momentum-swinging moments, and only then will they have a chance at an MLS Cup.

“It’s the playoffs, right?” Greg Vanney reflected. “You can look back in the history of the league and it’s rare, sometimes, that the best team wins the playoffs because there are such unique circumstances that can happen in a short period of time that can be the difference between winning and losing.

“The Supporters' Shield team has only won it, I think, six times out of however many (21) championships.

“If the Supporters' Shield is an indication of the most consistent - which maybe means best - team, it doesn't always translate in a cup competition at the end because again, the margins are so thin in our league and the stakes are [so] high, because it's the thing that everybody wants, that a lot of chaos ensues in different ways in the playoffs and it's unpredictable.”

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Amid all the madness, it was Toronto players who delivered when it mattered against the Red Bulls.

First there was Giovinco, whose free-kick earned the Reds a road win, and then Alex Bono, who made a one-on-one save on Bradley Wright-Phillips when only away goals separated the two teams with the clock ticking.

“You’re going to need that: in every playoff series you’re going to need a save, you’re going to need a play that has to get made,” Vanney added.

“New York [City] last year was a revelation. You don’t see a team control a series in the way we did and I think maybe we get a little bit... we start to think maybe that’s what we should do but that’s not what it looks like.

“Even last year against Montreal, that series went back and forth so many times, and more series’ look like that than the New York series.”

The gravity of the individual moments that these ties rest upon helps to explain why Bradley has carried himself with an assuredness even more intense than usual over the past few weeks, which hardly seemed possible.

It’s why he lavished praise on his teammates’ fight against the Red Bulls when challenged about their conduct and insisted he didn’t “want to hear any other narrative” about the way in which they had come through the tie.

There is simply no place in their room right now for self-doubt or even much evaluation - because when the ball is on Tosaint Ricketts’ toe in the penalty area or a striker is bearing down on Bono, they must believe completely that they are going to deliver.

TFC can look in the mirror and appraise themselves honestly in a month’s time.

Until then, a moment’s hesitation could be fatal.