MLS playoff rivals Toronto and Philadelphia face off on brink of history
Wednesday's MLS Cup playoff opener features two of the more success-starved teams in the league's history.
On one side you have Toronto FC, who after reaching the postseason for the first time last year is finally getting to host a playoff game in its 10th season. On the other you have the Philadelphia Union, who reached the playoffs this year for the first time since 2011, and just the second time since joining the league in 2010. Total combined playoff games between the two teams? Three, with the Union taking part in two of those. On Wednesday, one of these teams will win a playoff game for the first time.
Neither side is entering Wednesday's knockout match (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) on a roll. Toronto has won just once in its last six matches, and that was last weekend against a wretched Chicago Fire side that couldn't wait for the season to end. But TFC's 1W-1L-4T record in that span qualifies as Supporters Shield-winning form compared to the Union, who backed into the postseason in the throes of a seven-match winless streak.
For that reason alone TFC enters the match as the heaviest of favorites, but there are others as well. Toronto's ascent up the MLS hierarchy has taken a while, but it is a team on the up. The 53 points amassed this season are the most in the team's history. It has high profile players like reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco and US national team linchpins Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley in its ranks, as well as talented supporting players like Justin Morrow, Drew Moor and Jonathan Osorio. Granted, great expectations and the accompanying pressure aren't something Toronto has worn well historically, but the prospect of a home playoff game has manager Greg Vanney feeling confident.
"[Playing at home] will bring some excitement and some real energy to the stadium for the guys to feed off of," Vanney said via telephone.
"It's a real valuable asset to have, especially this time of year when the margins are so small."
Perhaps the biggest question for Vanney is whether he persists with the 3-5-2 he used last weekend against the Fire, or reverts to the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield that he utilized for most of the season. He insisted there isn't much difference.
"In a way it's just a matter of whether our holding midfielder is Bradley in front of the backline, or if our holding midfielder is Moor in the middle of our back three," he said.
"But the shape of everything else is more or less the same."
True, but the 3-5-2 allows wing backs Morrow and Steven Beitashour to be more aggressive in joining the attack, something Morrow did to great effect in scoring against Chicago last weekend. The tight diamond allows Toronto to overload the center of midfield with superior numbers and get guys like Osorio and Armando Cooper into open pockets of space.
The downside of the diamond is that Toronto has tended to struggle against highly mobile attacking midfielders. Back on Sept. 18, the New York Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan ran Toronto ragged with his ability to pop up in dangerous spots, and it had the effect of pulling Bradley out of the middle and leaving the center of Toronto's defense exposed. That's where having an extra central defender in a 3-5-2 can help. As for Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin, he's hoping that Tranquillo Barnetta can fill a similar role to Kljestan.
"The Tranquillos, the Sacha Kljestans are the new, modern No. 10s, where they're running No. 10s," Curtin said via telephone.
"They don't just stand in the center circle and get on the ball and just play through balls like Carlos Valderrama used to. They pop up all over the field. When they're on the ball, they're the guys that make the killer pass that springs you in at goal. I would put Tranquillo in that same mold as Sacha."
To be clear, Kljestan has had an MVP caliber season, but if Barnetta -- who missed the 1-1 draw between these two teams back on Sept. 24 -- can deliver even a Kljestan-lite performance, and get wingers Chris Pontius and Fabian Herbers involved in the attack, it will be a big boost for the Union.
A bigger concern for Curtin will be his side's play on the defensive side of the ball. Curtin admitted that the tendency of outside backs Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry to push high up the field does have a tendency to leave his team exposed defensively, but he bemoaned the defensive play of his entire team over the second half of the season.
"I'm a big believer that your defense starts with your front three to your midfield to all the way in the back," he said.
"Bottom line, we weren't good enough, whether it was making those plays in the box, a block, a slide tackle, doing everything you can to keep the ball out of your goal. I'm disappointed with how we ended the year, no question about it, and we don't hide from it or make excuses. We weren't good enough. But now we have a new challenge and a new opportunity on Wednesday night against a good Toronto team."
Toronto is a team that relies on Bradley to bring the ball out of the back, and Curtin added that Barnetta or forward C.J. Sapong will try to shadow the U.S. international in a bid to disrupt TFC's attacking rhythm.
"It's no secret. We'll always have someone to run at him to make Bradley play square or backwards," he said.
"It's almost like a spy in the NFL on the quarterback. Bradley is no different. If you just let him sit in the middle of the field and let him dictate the game, it doesn't work out too well."
Vanney has some defensive issues of his own, and admitted his side haven't done well at stopping opponents in transition. But TFC does have two aces in the attacking third in Giovinco and Altidore. Vanney estimated that Giovinco is "90 percent" recovered from the pair of muscle strains he sustained in late August. All the Italian needs now is time to reestablish the chemistry with his teammates, in order to attack the heart of the Union's shaky defense.
"We've got to be able to put some pressure on them and make their back line make decisions," said Vanney. "They've got a young group in the back and we've got to make them come up with some real plays." The team that does that the most will get their first taste of playoff success.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.