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Toronto FC haven’t rediscovered their summer form in the playoffs - and that’s okay

The postseason is proving to be a different beast.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

All the worries that we had about Toronto FC going into this game were borne out.

This time it was Gregg Berhalter, not Greg Vanney, who threw a tactical surprise into the mix, and it successfully stifled TFC. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco were not at their best for much of the game after their long spell on the sidelines. To make matters worse, Altidore picked up an injury.

And that big, statement home performance we’ve been waiting for? Well, we’re still waiting.

But in spite of it all, Toronto are Eastern Conference champions and MLS Cup finalists for the second year in a row.

They undoubtedly rode their luck at times. Just as Bradley Wright-Phillips had missed a gilt-edged chance to put the New York Red Bulls on the verge of eliminating TFC, so Justin Meram and Ola Kamara did here for the Columbus Crew.

“It’s a game of inches,” Wil Trapp said. “The ball doesn’t go under Ola’s foot and we win that game.”

Those inches, the randomness that can define any 90 minutes of soccer, explain why so few Supporters’ Shield winners go on to win the MLS Cup. We wondered whether Toronto might be so good that they could rise above that, but - perhaps through circumstance, perhaps because the gap between them and the rest is just not quite big enough - they haven’t yet.

They probably won’t against the Seattle Sounders (sorry, Houston) and they will need fortune to favour them once again as a result.

But while no team will get through these playoffs without facing up to the reality that no matter what you do, invincibility is virtually impossible, perhaps it is possible to push the luck in your direction.

Columbus Crew SC v Toronto FC - Eastern Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In that sense we can look to Michael Bradley’s phenomenal goal-saving tackle on Meram.

We can look to the one moment of brilliance that Giovinco, Altidore and Victor Vazquez combined to conjure up.

And we can look to Vanney’s decision to get those three players within arm’s reach of each other on the back of a first half in which Vazquez spent too much time in a much deeper position.

Columbus, on the other hand, could not get themselves on the right side of those junctures that defined the game.

Zack Steffen’s wonderful save to deny Vazquez was the exception. Many more - the awful touch by Meram that made Bradley’s tackle possible, for example, and his and Kamara’s misses - went the other way.

TFC are not playing vintage stuff but so far, they have owned the moments that matter. They have had heroes: Giovinco, Alex Bono, Bradley and now Altidore. And that says something about their strength of character, because it’s not easy to be used to imposing your will on opponents and suddenly find that is much, much more difficult to do.

“Our mentality over the course of 34 games in the regular season was so different than everyone else’s, because we didn’t take any nights off,” Bradley said. “We went after it every week. And that played a big part in things.

“In the playoffs, it’s easy for everybody to get excited and make sure they’re ready to go because if you don’t, your season’s done the next day.

“Things become tighter. A mistake either way can be the difference in playing on or going home.”

Columbus Crew SC v Toronto FC - Eastern Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Toronto have not just grudgingly accepted that they are going to need to win ugly; they have dived into it like pigs in mud. They’ll tell anyone who will listen that they relish it.

"I was talking to couple of people after the game - this team is not just that team that likes to play the pretty game and tiki-taka this and that,” Bono said.

“We’re a team that digs in. We lay our bodies on the line, we put our balls on the line every single game.”

"The playoffs... I have this conversation a lot,” Justin Morrow added. “They’re so different than the regular season. Teams play differently. Games are on edge.

“There’s so much more tension, especially in this series - it was such a tactical series. I know what it must look like to fans, that maybe we look different to the way we were playing in the regular season, but we’re trying the whole time to figure each other out and that’s what you see on the field.”

You get the sense from Bradley that he views the idea of cruising through the playoffs in style as borderline delusional.

“To win MLS Cup, to win in the playoffs, you can’t expect that the same things you do in the regular season are going to work every single night in the playoffs,” Bradley said. “It’d be naive.

“For the teams that think it’s the same, they’ve - over the history of the league - found their seasons done pretty quickly.”

Columbus Crew SC v Toronto FC - Eastern Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It’s not wrong to regard these games as not that much more heavily tilted in one team’s favour than the flip of a coin.

And it’s not wrong to state that the football TFC played through the summer was better than what they are serving up now.

Both of those things are uncomfortable to admit because they are an acknowledgement that a team so dominant for much of the campaign no longer boasts the same supremacy.

But it might have been unrealistic to ever expect that they would.

Now, Toronto have been challenged to advance the case that they are not only MLS’ best team in 2017 but also its most resolute; the one that never stops believing.

“We’ve embraced this idea that whatever we’ve got to do, whatever it has to look like, we’re going to do it,” Bradley concluded.

“We’re not going to worry about anything else. We’re not going to apologize for anything.

“We’re going to continue to find ways to make sure we can win games.”