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Toronto FC ready for hard-pressing Red Bulls in MLS Eastern Conference semifinal


Toronto FC posed for its team photo Thursday, with the Voyageurs Cup and Supporters' Shield proudly displayed in front.

The battle for a third trophy, the MLS Cup, starts for real Monday against the New York Red Bulls in the opening leg of the two-game Eastern Conference semifinal.

"The big one that we want to try and get to is the one that is in front of us now," coach Greg Vanney said after training Thursday. "But the only thing that matters for the MLS Cup that we're trying to get is the next game and it's in New York and it's going to be a tough one and we need to be prepared for that.

"It's one game at a time, one play at a time. And trying to be really focused and engaged in the moment. That's the most important thing as you play in the playoffs because one mistake either way can turn a game and turn a series upside down."

That might sound like a cliche but Toronto (20-5-9) really has approached its record-breaking season one step at time. There were goals — like winning the hardware that comes with the Canadian Championship and finishing atop the regular-season standings — but the team has been careful not to get ahead of itself.

If you're juggling five balls, it's a lot easier to focus on catching the next one than all five.

Unfinished business has been the TFC mindset since losing the MLS Cup via penalty shootout last December to Seattle at BMO Field. The players are reminded of that painful loss every day at the club's well-appointed training centre, where an empty trophy case awaits the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy in their lounge.

Vanney says his team is ready.

"In the last week and today in particular, I think there's just a different level of engagement," he said. "There's just another little notch of intensity. The group is very much aware of what's behind us is behind us and what's in front of us is what we need to prepare for and what we can try to affect."

The sixth-seeded Red Bulls (14-12-8 during the regular season) upset third-seeded Chicago 4-0 on the road Wednesday, advancing to face top-seeded Toronto. The series starts Monday at Red Bull Arena before switching to BMO Field on Nov. 5.

Toronto has been idle since rallying for a 2-2 tie in Atlanta last Sunday in the regular-season finale.

TFC finished 19 points ahead of the Red Bulls this season. The two teams tied 1-1 at Red Bull Arena in May, with Toronto winning 4-2 at home in September.

"You can make an argument that having the home game first sets the tone for the series," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said after the Chicago win. "So it's time to put our money where our mouth is. Toronto is a very good team and the reason why we haven't beaten them is because they're a very good team."

But the Red Bulls come into the Toronto series with momentum. They are unbeaten in four (3-0-1) and having lost just once in their last six outings (3-1-2), with the lone setback the Sept. 30 defeat in Toronto.

Prior to that loss, the New Yorkers had gone winless in eight in all competitions (0-3-5).

But they went 9-2-6 at Red Bull Arena this season, outscoring the opposition 30-14. Vanney says a visit to the stadium in suburban Harrison, N.J., always means a competitive game.

"I think that's just New York in general," he said of the Red Bulls. "You go there and you know there's going to be a little more scratching, biting, clawing. It's going to be a little more competitive and heated. You know again they're not going to back off, they're going to come right at you. Their team is what creates the environment."

Marsch's side likes to play a high-pressing game, looking to create turnovers.

"It's important that we are diligent and smart with our choices, good with out passes, take care of the ball," said Vanney.

The Red Bulls struck quickly against Chicago, with two goals in the first 15 minutes. English striker Bradley Wright-Phillips started the scoreboard ticking with his 99th goal in all competitions.

"They're always a tricky team ... We have your work cut out for us, for sure," said Toronto defender Drew Moor.

"It's going to be a tough matchup for us," added fullback Justin Morrow, who scored a hat trick against the New Yorkers last month. "They come with a lot of energy."

Toronto will likely look to use the Red Bulls' pressing game against them by waiting for space to open up behind the front. Led by midfielder Victor Vazquez, Marky Delgado and captain Michael Bradley, TFC excels when it moves the ball quickly.

With New York's Sacha Kljestan, who led the league with 17 assists this season, and Vazquez (second with 16), the series feature two of the best setup men in MLS.

The Red Bulls, who entered the league 11 years before Toronto arrived in 2007, have 47 playoff games under their franchise belt, compared to seven for Toronto (4-3-0).


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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