Relaxed Red Bulls brace for top-seeded Toronto
Toronto FC begins the MLS Cup playoffs as one of the favorites after a season in which it set a league record with 69 points.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals, Toronto face a New York Red Bulls team that knows how precarious that position can be.
The Red Bulls came into the playoffs as the top team in the East in 2015 and 2016, only to fail to reach the MLS Cup final in both seasons.
In 2017, New York squeaked into the postseason as the sixth and final team out of the East before stunning the third-seeded Chicago Fire with a 4-0 knockout-round win on Wednesday night. And as the Red Bulls prepare to welcome Toronto in the first leg of their two-leg, total-goals semifinal on Monday night, even New York coach Jesse Marsch suggested his team has less of a burden this time around.
"There's not too much to talk about (that) really," Marsch said Saturday. "There's an ease to our team right now. We just want to prepare ourselves for the game and go out and play."
Even so, Marsch knows attempting to unseat Toronto will be a "massive challenge."
The Red Bulls drew 1-1 with Toronto FC at home on May 19 before losing 4-2 away on Sept. 30 as Toronto clinched the Supporters' Shield, which goes to the MLS team that posts the most regular-season points.
Toronto has lost just twice in its past 16 league matches. And it has shown more offensive balance than even last year's team, which lost on penalties in a heartbreaking MLS Cup final to the Seattle Sounders.
Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore still lead the team with 16 and 15 goals, respectively, but five TFC players have found the net at least seven times.
One of them is Victor Vazquez, who had 16 assists in the regular season to finish one behind the Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan for the MLS lead. Vazquez added eight goals.
With that depth, Toronto coach Greg Vanney hopes to find a balance between playing his team's game and adapting to his opponent.
"The Red Bulls are a great disrupter of people's style of play ... and a high-pressing team," Vanney said. "We've got to be prepared for that and be smart and get the game back into our vision of the game as soon as we can."
Even though Toronto has never won an MLS Cup, securing its first could give it a claim to being the best single-season team in league history.
Toronto FC would clearly hold the edge over the 1998 LA Galaxy, who had the previous points record with 68. That year, the Galaxy did not even make the MLS Cup final, as Chicago emerged from the West to win it in an expansion season.
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls are still in search of their first trophy in knockout competition. They lost in the final of the U.S. Open Cup at Sporting Kansas City last month.
New York won the Supporters' Shield in the 2013 and 2015 seasons.
Updated October 29, 2017