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Toronto's quietly impressive defense will need to shine to reach MLS Cup

TORONTO -- A few days after last year's defeat in the MLS Cup final, a small group of Toronto FC's veteran players got together. Michael Bradley was there. So was Drew Moor. The bitterness from losing on penalties to the Seattle Sounders hadn't yet abated, but the group agreed that there was reason for hope. The core of the team would be coming back. There was every reason to think TFC were capable of returning to the MLS Cup final.

As the group dispersed for the offseason, a marker of sorts was put down.

"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get back into this position," Moor said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "We said we have to be sure to put pressure on ourselves to step into every single match from March to December wanting to win, feeling like we can win and having the confidence to go out and win."

Granted, saying is one thing, and doing is another. Yet the Reds have reached every goal they've set for themselves so far. Toronto recorded a record points haul during the regular season, and it now finds itself just one win away from a return trip to the MLS Cup final. That familiarity with pressure is why Toronto insists that there is no added burden heading into the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Columbus Crew.

"We're not feeling any weight of anything," captain Bradley told reporters on Tuesday. "Games like [Wednesday's] are why you play. On the biggest nights, when everything is on the line, these are the games you want to be playing in.

"The players and the teams who embrace that and who aren't fazed by it, who are ready to just step on the field and go for it, not worry about what-ifs, not worry about anything else and just be ready in a fearless, aggressive way go after the game ... those are the teams that give themselves the best chance."

Toronto looked plenty nervous in the previous round against the New York Red Bulls, when it took a one-goal advantage from the first leg and nearly squandered it, showing a distinct lack of composure and discipline. But ultimately TFC prevailed, and rather than dwell on how poorly the team played, Toronto to a man has preferred to focus on the "survive and advance" mantra that typifies the postseason.

Toronto FCToronto FC
Columbus Crew SCColumbus Crew SC
1
0
FT
Leg 2Aggregate: 1 - 0
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"You have to be able to grind through results, especially in the playoffs, and I think that was what that second leg against the Red Bulls was," Moor said.

"We didn't play good soccer. We didn't play as well as we would have liked to, but I was actually proud when we walked off the field. I felt like the chips were against us for whatever reason. It just wasn't our day, but for it to not be our day and to not cave, to not give in to everything we were facing, I was proud of the grit and the determination and the character."

It was a day on which Toronto had its defense to thank for keeping its championship hopes intact. The same was true in the first leg against Columbus, a 0-0 draw at MAPFRE Stadium that was achieved with both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco missing the match through suspension.

Those results shined a rare light on a unit that has often flown under the radar this season. TFC, with Altidore, Giovinco and Victor Vazquez in rampant form for much of the campaign, scored 74 goals, tied for second most in league history.

But the Reds excelled on defense as well, with their 37 goals allowed the second-best mark in the league, behind Sporting Kansas City's 29. The back three of Moor, Chris Mavinga and usually Eriq Zavaleta -- augmented by wing-backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour -- has gone about its business with a quiet efficiency.

"We're fine with that," Beitashour told ESPN FC. "People like watching goalscorers. They don't like watching clean sheets."

Granted, a vibrant attack such as Toronto has eases the defending burden. A team is less inclined to take risks knowing it can be punished at the other end. That doesn't mean TFC's defense is devoid of challenges, but they tend to appear in a different form. Foremost among them is making sure the defensive shape remains solid when TFC has the ball.

Drew Moor
Drew Moor has led a Toronto FC back line that conceded the second-fewest goals in MLS in 2017.

"When we're in possession, that's when we have to do most of our work in the back: getting guys organized, getting guys on their attacking players so if we do turn it over, if they do come at us in transition, we're in good spots," Moor said.

"A lot of times, I don't get to see how we're attacking because it's very much focused on not allowing the other team to transition on us."

Moor and his cohorts will have to be at their organizational best on Wednesday. With a vociferous crowd cheering them on, and with Altidore and Giovinco back in the lineup, the impulse will be for the Reds to take the game to the Crew. Yet the result in the first leg means that Toronto will need to manage risk versus return.

Columbus' penchant for pushing its full-backs high has been one of its trademarks throughout the years. The game state -- any draw with goals will see the Crew advance -- will dictate how much Berhalter pushes them forward. But doing so will certainly put some stress on wing-backs Morrow and Beitashour, as will the Crew's off-the-ball movement.

"The key thing with that is communicating and communicating early, because if you try to react, it's too late. You can't just react," Beitashour said of combating Columbus' attack.

"You have to constantly look around to see who is moving where, and you have to talk, and you have to say before he gets there, 'You need to slide over here, and I need to slide over there,' or 'You need to step forward, and I'm going to slide over,' or 'You need to drop back, and I'm going to slide out.'

"You need constant, constant communication."

Doing so will put Toronto one step closer to its ultimate goal.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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