After getting the unlikely yet needed set of results on Decision Day to claim home field for the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Toronto FC looks to make good use of that advantage Saturday when it hosts D.C. United.
The Reds (13-10-11) edged out United (13-10-11) on goal difference to claim the No. 4 spot in the East, which put the venue at BMO Field as opposed to Audi Field in the nation’s capital. Toronto FC has been a team of fits and spurts but did go unbeaten over its final 10 regular-season matches (4-0-6).
The 2017 MLS Cup champion and 2016 finalist, Toronto is in the postseason for just the fourth time in franchise history since entering the league in 2007. With the change in format to a straight knockout affair as opposed to two-legged ties until the MLS Cup, coach Greg Vanney is coming to grips with the changes he has to make in match-managing.
“In a two-game series, road goals play a factor, but the margins are broader,” he told TFC’s official website. “A couple years ago when we went to Montreal and we got down three goals right away, you don’t come back from that in one game series, you need two games.
“You’ve got to manage risk-reward better, be wiser in how you close out games, things like that,” he added. “You just have to be sharper. Every second matters, there are a lot of little things you have to be a lot more focused on when you’re in a one-game and you’re done if you don’t get a result. Also, penalty kicks are something we’ve got to address.”
Having first-choice striker Jozy Altidore will be a huge help in claiming a spot opposite New York City FC in the conference semifinals. When healthy, Altidore has been a goal-scoring menace with 11 goals in just 22 league matches, finishing second to Alejandro Pozuelo in goals. He was not with the U.S. team during the international break, staying behind in Ontario after suffering a calf injury in the season-ending 1-0 victory over Columbus.
Pozuelo was one of just four players in MLS this season to reach double figures in goals and assists, finishing tied for seventh in the latter category with 12. The Reds closed the season on a three-match home winning streak and went 9-4-4 there overall.
This will be Wayne Rooney’s second and final chance to win an MLS Cup as England’s all-time leading scorer will return home following United’s run. The all-time leading scorer for the Three Lions, Rooney – who had 11 goals – started brightly but faded down the stretch and failed to score in his final seven matches for the Black-and-Red.
“We know we’re probably not going to have more possession than Toronto,” Rooney said. “We know that and we’re prepared for that. But we need to be more clinical and take our chances on the break a bit better than we have done in previous away games. A lot of our focus is obviously on trying to do that.”
There is also some personal redemption at stake for the 34-year-old striker, who missed from the spot in United’s loss on penalty kicks to Columbus in the knockout round last year.
Who will be providing service for Rooney is still up for debate for coach Ben Olsen. Paul Arriola took over No. 10 duties from Luciano Acosta during the regular season, but the Argentine did have an outstanding connection with Rooney throughout last season. Rooney could also have a partner up front as summer addition Ola Kamara is fully match fit and had three goals in his five appearances.
United were a stingy road team, shipping just 16 goals in their 17 matches while recording seven clean sheets. They did not concede a goal in their final three contests outside Audi Field, and keeper Bill Hamid recorded 14 shutouts to finish tied atop the MLS leaderboard with Atlanta’s Brad Guzan.
One of those shutouts was a scoreless draw in Toronto on May 15, and Rooney gave United a point with a stoppage-time penalty in a 1-1 deadlock in June. Toronto is 6-8-3 all-time at home versus D.C. but 4-2-3 in the last nine north of the border.