Henry Bushnell
Thursday October 27th, 2016

Breath, Toronto. Exhale. The wait is finally, mercifully over.

It took 10 years, eight managers and a whole lot of frustration, but Toronto FC won its first MLS playoff game in franchise history Wednesday night with a 3-1 defeat of the Philadelphia Union. It vanquished a streak of historic futility and, in doing so, immediately announced itself as an Eastern Conference contender.

Nerves and the weight of the drought were apparent early on, as the Union ran TFC out of any rhythm, and cut off all avenues into Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. But some shambolic Union defending gifted the hosts the breakthrough, along with the release of emotion and tension that they desperately craved.

More haphazard defending three minutes after halftime quelled any lingering worries. A Michael Bradley corner skipped into some alarmingly open space at the back post, where Jonathan Osorio pounced and smashed a bouncing ball past a helpless Andre Blake to make it 2-0.

The visitors’ introduction of Ilsinho as a substitute brought signs of life, and then a lifeline, as Toronto returned the favor by failing to clear a corner. The Union won three consecutive headers, and the third fell to an unmarked Alejandro Bedoya, who made it 2-1.

Bedoya’s strike brought all those ominous thoughts flooding back. But a two-man Giovinco-Altidore break and some more calamitous play from Union center back Ken Tribbett sent Altidore into a scrum of home fans to celebrate, and sent TFC to the conference semifinals.

With the proverbial monkey of Toronto’s collective back, the focus now turns to a two-leg showdown with New York City FC. And that leads to the first of our three thoughts:

TFC can’t be discounted as MLS Cup contenders

They were by no means rampant or overly impressive Wednesday, but the Reds are what we already knew they were. At times they can look disjointed. At times they feel like an incomplete puzzle. But they have the league’s best player, and two others that aren’t far behind. They’ll rarely, if ever, face a talent deficit–although NYCFC matches them in the DP department–and especially against a suspect NYCFC back line, Toronto is dangerous.

GALLERY: 20 years of MLS Cup winners

Toronto’s 5-3-2 is intriguing

Let’s call it what it is. It’s not a 3-5-2. It’s a true five-man back line, with the traditional fullbacks, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, both given license and responsibility to give the attack width. Toronto doesn’t need invention or creativity from those two going forward. It just needs their presence.

Their presence, when the scheme functions as TFC boss Greg Vanney hopes, stretches an opponent horizontally, and occasionally allows Toronto to isolate Altidore and Giovinco against opposing center backs—or, if an opposing midfielder goes to a TFC wingback, Giovinco can drift wide and feast on a fullback.

Assuming Vanney sticks with this relatively new system, TFC won’t appear to dominate any games from here on out. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be more solid at the back with the extra numbers while still being just as dangerous going forward.

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Tribbett's nightmare, and a fitting end for Philadelphia

One of many surprising aspects of the form that took the Union to the top of the Eastern Conference in June was the competence of their center backs. But over the second half of the season, compounded by the loss of rookie Joshua Yaro to injury, that competence disappeared. That was blatantly clear on Wednesday, with Tribbett at fault for two of TFC’s goals. He volleyed a clearance attempt backwards and was beaten by Altidore, who lobbed an assist to Giovinco for the opener. Then he made a mess of what should have been a simple touch, allowing Altidore to finish off the game.

It seems pretty safe to say that it’s the early-season performances that were the flukes, not the late struggles. Philly’s center back tandem of Tribbett and Richie Marquez is a pairing of two unheralded college products, one from Drexel, the other from Division III University of Redlands, and while Marquez has shown promise, Tribbett was unheralded for a reason.

The Union won early on because they gelled as a unit and outworked teams, not because of their revamped roster. Both those advantages wore off by season’s end, and although a playoff appearance is nice, the immediate feeling among the fan base has to be disappointment.

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