Coach Greg Vanney has a simple message for his players as Toronto FC prepares for a playoff run: just be yourself.
“There’s no need to try to do more because it’s a playoff game,” Vanney said on a video call Monday. “It’s still a soccer game, you still win it the same way.”
What the club has been doing this year has been working.
Toronto finished the regular season with a 13-5-5 record and narrowly missed out on the Supporter’s Shield awarded annually to the team that finishes atop the Major League Soccer standings.
The club struggled slightly to close out the campaign, dropping three of its last four games, but has had nearly two weeks to train and recover since finishing the regular season with a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls.
TFC will open its playoffs against a new foe on Tuesday, coming up against expansion side Nashville SC.
It will be the first-ever meeting for the two teams, following after a regular season that saw repeated matchups between clubs in a bid to reduce travel and potential exposure to COVID-19.
“In some ways, it’s nice. I feel like we’ve played so many teams so many times and then we played a lot of teams not at all,” Vanney said. “So I think it’s a little bit better that there’s a lack of familiarity instead of over familiarity at this point.”
Nashville finished the regular season seventh in the East with a 8-7-8 record, and beat fellow league rookies Inter Miami CF 3-0 on Friday to advance through the play-in round.
It was another clean sheet for a team that gave up just 22 goals in regular-season play.
“(Nashville’s) a good team, a stingy team,” Vanney said. “They make it difficult to play against them. And they obviously have players who can make some plays.”
TFC has a big advantage in experience. The club has reached the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and advanced to three of the last four MLS Cup finals, beating Seattle in 2017 and losing to the Sounders in 2016 and last season.
The fact that the core group has a lot of experience together is important, but it doesn’t guarantee a result, said veteran midfielder Michael Bradley.
“No two teams are exactly the same, no two situations are exactly the same,” said the TFC captain, who’s played 16 post-season games for Toronto.
“But you’d be dumb if you didn’t find ways to draw on the collective experience of the group. And I think we’ll do that. We’ve always done that. But again, we know it doesn’t count for anything when the whistle blows.”
When it comes to the playoffs, however, “everything gets thrown out the window,” and that’s especially true in MLS because of the knockout format, Bradley said.
Every player on every team starts the game believing they can win, no matter what happened in the regular season, he added.
“No one holds anything back. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing at home or away — even more so no with stadiums that are either empty or just a few fans. It doesn’t matter recent form, any of that stuff,” Bradley said. “It’s 90 minutes and you have two teams that are playing for their season.”
The first weekend of MLS playoff action saw some surprises, including No. 6 Dallas FC taking down the No. 3 Portland Timbers in an extended shootout. It was the third game to go to penalty kicks in the post-season’s opening weekend.
“It’s been intriguing,” Vanney said. “Multiple games have had their moments of shenanigans or other types of excitement or other things that come into the equation just because the emotions are high, everything is on the line and things start to get a little bit fuzzy sometimes. But it’s been fun to watch, as the playoffs always are.”
NASHVILLE SC (8-7-8) AT TORONTO FC (13-5-5)
Tuesday, Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium
ON THE ROAD: Toronto FC returned to its temporary home of East Hartford, Conn., on Sunday. Vanney said the team will remain in the U.S. for the duration of the playoffs.
MAN DOWN: Nashville midfielder Anibal Godoy left Friday’s game with a hamstring injury and is not expected to play on Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2020.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press