The biggest game of the season? Sure. The second-biggest game in Toronto FC history? TFC have more riding on this year than any other since their foundation, so I guess so.
The Reds will attempt to defend the Eastern Conference championship on Wednesday night when the Columbus Crew come to town.
After a 0-0 draw in the first leg of this conference final, the permutations are relatively simple: Toronto will host the MLS Cup final for the second year in a row with a win by any scoreline. Another goalless tie will bring 30 minutes of extra time and then, if it is still level (goalless or not), penalties.
Columbus go through with a score draw after 90 minutes (by virtue of scoring more away goals, which ceases to be a factor in extra time) or any win - which, it must be said, is not a bad place to be at all given the sheer randomness of a single game of soccer.
But Toronto are the favourites. They were MLS’ best home team during the regular season, winning 13 of 17 games and losing just once. They have also been tight defensively of late, conceding just three non-penalty goals in their past six games.
Kick-off: 7.30 p.m. ET
Venue: BMO Field, Toronto
Ever since easing through the back end of the regular season, Toronto have played like a team trying to hit the accelerator again only to find it jammed.
It’s not all - or even mostly - been bad but the better performances have come on the road, when Toronto have focused on limiting their opponents’ chances and picking their moments to strike at the other end. They haven’t always had the rub of the green in those circumstances; Drew Moor just did not have a great game against an Atlanta United side that otherwise struggled to break Toronto down, and a debatable penalty undid 45 minutes of good work at the New York Red Bulls.
At home, though, we’ve been waiting for the kind of confident, dominant performance that was the norm over the summer for a couple of months now.
So the question is this: can Toronto finally put the pedal to the floor again?
As I wrote about earlier this week, I really struggle to see past Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore versus the Crew centre-backs. Columbus need those two to show some signs of rust or Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams to play really, really well.
Mensah has all the tools to be an excellent defender but frequently makes errors, while Williams is still the Williams you saw in Toronto. He’s benefited from a more regular run of games, sure, and has always been an honest, dependable player, but stars of Giovinco and Altidore’s quality are capable of getting the better of him.
Two things will be key: Toronto’s ability to move the ball through the lines to create striker vs. centre-back one-on-ones before the Crew as a whole have retreated, and how often the TFC wing-backs can get forward to stretch the field and create space in the middle. Mohammed Abu is not nearly as aggressive defensively as Artur, who he will replace due to suspension.
The opposition view
Gregg Berhalter is hoping Giovinco and Altidore might not quite be in their groove after so long without a game:
“I think [it could affect their rhythm]. To me, it’s a logical conclusion to make: that if they haven’t played in 24 days, they're going to be somewhat rusty. But when you take quality like that, them somewhat rusty is still pretty good, for the level of quality they have.”
Predicting Toronto FC’s lineup against the Columbus Crew (leg two)
Injury Report: Sebastian Giovinco & Jozy Altidore return to healthy squad
Toronto FC need Sebastian Giovinco & Jozy Altidore to fire them back into form
Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew: What to watch for
TV channel & live stream
TV: TSN 1, 4 & 5 (Canada), FS1 (USA)
Stream: TSN Go (Canada), Fox Sports Go (USA), MLS Live (out of market)
Radio: TSN 1050 (Toronto), CD 102.5, LaMega 103.1 (Ohio)
Toronto have Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore back after suspension and are fully healthy.
Columbus will be missing Artur, who picked up a second yellow card of the playoffs in the first leg and is banned for a game as a result.
Gaston Sauro, Alex Crognale, Ben Swanson and Connor Maloney are injured.
Toronto: Bono; Zavaleta, Moor, Mavinga; Beitashour, Osorio, Bradley, Vazquez, Morrow; Altidore, Giovinco.
Subs: Irwin, Hagglund, Cooper, Edwards, Hasler, Delgado, Ricketts.
Columbus: Steffen; Mensah, Williams, Abubakar; Afful, Trapp, Abu, Santos; Higuain, Meram; Kamara.
Subs: Raitala, Jimenez, Jahn, Hansen, Crognale, Manneh, Stuver.