TORONTO – Armed with a 2-0 lead, Toronto FC goes to Yankee Stadium this weekend looking to make history against New York City FC.
Toronto has the edge thanks to some late-game heroics at home in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal. But NYCFC led Major League Soccer in scoring with 62 goals, 35 of which came in the tight confines of the soccer field squeezed into their baseball home.
For Toronto, each step in the playoffs represents the biggest game in franchise history. It failed to make the post-season in its first eight seasons and was humiliated 3-0 in Montreal last year in its playoff debut.
TFC has won twice already in these playoffs, ousting Philadelphia in the first round before beating NYCFC last Sunday, and is on a roll. If it gets past NYCFC, it will face either the Montreal Impact or New York Red Bulls in the conference final.
NYCFC, in its second year of existence, has yet to register a playoff win.
Toronto will have to dispatch the New Yorkers on hostile, unfamiliar territory.
The Yankee Stadium pitch measures 110 yards long by 70 yards wide, while BMO Field is 115 yards by 74.3. it may not seem much but makes a big difference — Toronto coach Greg Vanney says small fields can lead to chaos.
“Things get out in front of goal quicker. The game is a lot faster,” he said.
“These games in New York always are a little funny,” he added. “That’s why I say in all circumstances, we need to be prepared and ready for everything.”
Take the 4-4 tie at Yankee Stadium in July 2015 when Toronto star Sebastian Giovinco scored a hat trick in nine minutes. NYCFC ace David Villa potted a pair. And there were four penalties awarded, of which only two were converted.
Add the permutations possible in a 180-minute aggregate series on top of a compact field and the fact that NYCFC conceded 57 goals this season and it could make for a thriller Sunday night.
Who scores first may be all-important. If Toronto breaks the ice, NYCFC will have to score four times since away goals count double in the event of an aggregate tie after 180 minutes.
Should the New Yorkers go ahead, they are one goal away from levelling — providing they keep Toronto off the scoresheet.
Balance was the buzzword Friday after Toronto’s training session on a modified pitch in a bid to recreate Sunday’s playing surface.
“We’ve got to find the right balance of looking for our moments to really be goal-dangerous and try to get the goal,” said Vanney. “And obviously always being cognizant of preventing things on the other side.”
“I think that’s the real key,” Giovinco added through an interpreter. “The team needs to be really balanced if we are to win.”
On the 14 occasions a team has trailed by at least two goals after the first leg in the MLS playoffs, only two have rallied to win the series. The last team to do it was Kansas City in 2004 when the Wizards won the second leg 3-0 over San Jose after losing the opener 2-0.
Giovinco knows the stakes are high Sunday.
“It’s going to be a very important moment for the city and for all of us,” he said. “And we are ready for it.”
Last Sunday’s 2-0 win was Toronto’s first victory in six tries (1-2-3) against New York City FC. Their two previous meetings at Yankee Stadium ended in ties (4-4 and 2-2).
Both coaches said they had no injury concerns. NYCFC’s Italian star Andrea Pirlo returned to training Thursday after missing Game 1 with a calf muscle injury.
NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said while his team had made it difficult for itself, “we still believe.”
Villa has been in the spotlight this week for opting to go in goal with Eirik Johansen over Josh Saunders, who played in all but one of team’s 34 regular-season games, not bringing England’s Frank Lampard on until the 61st minute, and subbing Villa in the 78th minute.
Team officials denied a published report that a group of unhappy players met after the loss in Toronto to air their beefs.
New York’s Jack Harrison, Maxime Chanot, Mikey Lopez, Federico Bravo and Frank Lampard are all on yellow cards, as are Toronto’s Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Armando Cooper.
A second yellow means a one-game suspension.
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