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MLS Playoff Preview: Toronto FC vs. NYCFC

Photo by Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

Two of MLS’ most exciting teams collide in the Eastern Conference semifinal in a matchup with no shortage of starpower.

Following their midweek win over the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC hosts New York City FC on Sunday in the first match of a two-legged tie. The matchup pits two of the league’s elite forwards, Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa, against one another while challenging a pair of evolved backlines to step up.

The match provides NYCFC with its first taste of playoff action, while Toronto FC will be looking to build in its second ever home playoff match. With a spot in the conference finals on the line, both sides have plenty of firepower heading into what could be a back-and-forth series.

Here is a closer look at the matchup.

SEASON SERIES: The two sides split a pair of meetings over the regular season, with the first finishing, 2-2, in March before a May rematch finished with a 1-1 scoreline. Of the six goals, two were scored by players no longer in MLS, as Kwadwo Poku and Damien Perquis contributed goals to their respective sides.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

NYCFC: David Villa is almost always a guaranteed danger, but NYCFC reached a different level when Frank Lampard is on his game. Lampard has always had a stop-and-start stay in New York, but the English star gives NYCFC a major presence in the attacking end when he is on the field. If Lampard is on his game, NYCFC is almost impossible to stop.

TORONTO FC: The second half of the season has been defined by Jozy Altidore‘s resurgence. Even without Sebastian Giovinco in the lineup, the U.S. Men’s National Team forward thrived, scoring in bunches down the home stretch. Altidore provided another Man of the Match performance against the Union in the opening round, and TFC becomes infinitely more dangerous if Altidore is holding, passing and, inevitably, shooting from dangerous areas.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Jefferson Mena and Frederic Brillant have had up-and-down moments in the heart of NYCFC’s defense, but Sebastian Giovinco is the biggest test a defense can face in MLS. Mena in particularly has proven mistake prone, and the Italian star will certainly be ready to pounce at even the slightest error. At the end of the day, Mena and Brillant need to be virtually flawless if they hope to keep Giovinco quiet.

X-FACTORS:

NYCFC: TFC has utilized a three-at-the-back set with success, making it vital that NYCFC wingers Tommy McNamara and Jack Harrison cause havoc down the wings. The two NYCFC attackers will need to drag the back three out wide while tracking TFC’s wing backs throughout the match. Wide play will be vital, and if McNamara and Harrison can win that battle, NYCFC should be on their way to a result.

TFC: We know about Giovinco, we know about Altidore and we know about Michael Bradley, but who will be the player to step in and shine when the three DPs aren’t running the game? In TFC’s knockout round win, it was Jonathan Osorio who provided what proved to be a vital goal. Once again, Osorio is a candidate to step up, and TFC will certainly need him to against a talented NYCFC midfield that includes three European veterans.

OUTLOOK:

On paper, Sunday’s clash between NYCFC and TFC has the potential to be the most thrilling match of the weekend. Given the attacking talent on both sides, there are plenty of goals to be scored. Both sides will create chances. They’re too good not to.

NYCFC has bounced between decent and calamitous on the defensive end. There are moments where NYCFC seemingly has it all together and, to Patrick Vieira’s credit, the group has improved mightily throughout the year. However, there are still those moments of madness from the backline and the goalkeeper, mistakes that produce backbreaking goals.

The key will be limiting those mistakes, on both ends. TFC’s defense has long been their weak spot, but this season’s team has been vastly different. Led by MLS veterans in Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour, TFC has looked significantly better as the group allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.

TFC also has the benefit of home-field advantage, even if they are coming off a midweek effort against the Union. If TFC can win at home, it puts plenty of pressure on NYCFC to perform in their first ever playoff match at Yankee Stadium. If NYCFC can poach a goal or two, though, TFC could need to chase in Leg 2 due to the away-goals rule. That makes Sunday about limiting mistakes. You can’t go out and win the tie on Sunday, but you can certainly lose it.

Both sides have the potential for greatness, and both also have the potential for complete calamity. This matchup will be about managing the latter while taking another step towards the former.

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