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Toronto FC to balance momentum and rest as MLS playoffs approach

Greg Vanney may be tempted to make changes for the trip to the LA Galaxy.

Chris Blanchette / Waking the Red

It might be the biggest challenge Greg Vanney has faced all season.

The Toronto FC coach hinted after Saturday’s win over the San Jose Earthquakes that he would consider attempting the seemingly impossible in the coming weeks: persuading Michael Bradley to take a game off.

“Whenever that day might come it will be a wrestling match between Michael and I, for sure,” Vanney said. “He doesn’t like to come off the field, whether it’s training or games.”

Needless to say, Bradley does not think a break is necessary.

“No, I feel good,” the captain replied when asked if he has to manage his workload at this time of year. “I love to play, I love to compete.

“There’s plenty of time to rest during the week. There’s periods where the schedule lightens up a little bit, so I’ll be ready to go.”

Bradley sees this as a relatively forgiving time of year on the body.

His international commitments could complicate things - the nightmare scenario is the United States needing to play in a World Cup play-off which, as things are currently scheduled, clashes with the second leg of the Eastern Conference semi-final - but as of today, Toronto’s run-in looks fairly straightforward.

Chris Blanchette / Waking the Red

The Reds’ last long road trip of the season comes next weekend, when they visit the LA Galaxy, and the following Wednesday they have their final midweek date of the campaign at BMO Field against the Montreal Impact.

They will have more than a month after that before they play their first postseason game. It’s a much better situation than the one Bradley labelled a “total joke” back in June, when Toronto played six games in 19 days.

But at this stage of the season, achieving the tricky balance between maintaining the team’s current momentum and ensuring players are fresh for the playoffs will nevertheless play on Vanney’s mind.

Sebastian Giovinco was substituted at half-time against San Jose due to tightness in his quad, and that is not the first minor muscle niggle that has bothered the Italian this season.

Vanney also explained Jozy Altidore’s withdrawal in those terms, while Marky Delgado appeared to be treated for cramp after feeling the force of Darwin Ceren’s red-card tackle.

It may be nothing to worry about. Perhaps Giovinco simply needs to get his legs back underneath him after the international break, and Altidore felt the effects of the travelling he did with the USA before arriving back in Toronto for a quick turnaround to MLS action.

It would not be at all surprising, though, if a few players sat out the upcoming trip to California. Travel is one of the biggest contributors to fatigue and Vanney left several players at home when Toronto flew out to the Seattle Sounders earlier this season.

Chris Blanchette / Waking the Red

That was a particularly bad stretch - Toronto had Wednesday games either side of the 10-hour round trip - but with a nine-point lead at the top of the standings, it doesn’t make sense to take any risks.

The fact that the Galaxy have won two home games all season also helps.

Vanney put a coach’s spin on things: he sees his upcoming selection decisions not so much in terms of resting players but instead giving others an opportunity to get into a rhythm for the most important games of the year.

“There’s games ahead that I’m looking at to try to make sure we keep guys sharp, get guys playing,” he said on Saturday.

“If you’ve noticed a little bit over the course of the last few games, I’ve tried to use different guys in substitution roles to try to keep getting guys out. Armando [Cooper] got out today, who hasn’t been out for a while. We were able to get Tosaint [Ricketts] back out there who hasn’t been [playing regularly]. [Jonathan Osorio]’s been going again, [Steven Beitashour]’s now moving again.

“So we’re trying to keep as many guys sharp as we can and there are games coming up where we could start a different group or something, but at the same time you want to continue to build on each of these performances and not lose some momentum.

“And so there’s opportunity but you’ve got to keep an eye on both things. But this is a mature group and it’s important that we go into the playoffs with as many players as we possibly can sharp and on their game.”

Chris Blanchette / Waking the Red

Osorio’s recent resurgence has been useful in this regard because it will have served as a reminder to the likes of Cooper, Ricketts and Raheem Edwards, if they needed it, that their fortunes could change very quickly.

Toronto’s current five-match winning streak has been borne largely out of their ability to get their best XI on the field consistently, but the value of their depth and options from the bench will be more apparent over the two-legged marathons to come.

It is another example of how this entire season has been meticulously mapped out, though, that beyond the Galaxy game Vanney should not have to worry as much as might be expected about overworking his players.

If every player gets one game off between now and season’s end, only three of them - Bradley, Alex Bono and Eriq Zavaleta - will have a chance of surpassing 2,500 minutes in MLS before the playoffs. The last two MLS Cup champions, the Sounders and the Portland Timbers, had seven and six players of that description respectively.

So when the final match of the regular season at Atlanta United comes around, a momentum-building win - and a chance to take a test run at a tough Eastern Conference venue - might be more valuable to TFC’s stars than a weekend off.