How Toronto FC can defeat Nashville in MLS playoff opener

Greg Vanney talks what he expects from his team in first-round MLS Cup Playoffs against Nashville SC.

After the Montreal Impact's heartbreaking elimination at the hands of the New England Revolution, Toronto FC remains the lone Canadian team left standing in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.

The Reds' first test of the post-season will come against Nashville SC, fresh off a convincing 3-0 win over Inter Miami in the play-in round on Friday night. Even though TFC is one of the MLS Cup favourites, this could be a stern challenge for last year's finalists.

Here are three keys to victory for Toronto FC in their opening playoff game on Tuesday in East Hartford.

A fully fit squad

It goes without saying, but having a healthy squad for the beginning of the playoffs is massive for Toronto FC.

While Toronto's defence has remained relatively consistent throughout the season, when analyzing its game-by-game expected goals against (xGA), TFC's expected goals (xG) is a different story.

Toronto's xG per 90 minutes fell by nearly 0.5 compared to their first 11 matches. This partially coincided with injuries to forwards Jozy Altidore and Pablo Piatti, along with midfielder Marky Delgado.

Luckily for TFC, 20-year-old Ayo Akinola deputized admirably for Altidore, scoring nine goals in 14 matches. His intelligent off-the-ball movement and composed finishing allowed him to constantly pop up into promising scoring positions.

But when comparing Akinola's 2020 statistical radar with Altidore's, there are glaring differences. Altidore is also a quality finisher and, like his young teammate, is blessed with the ability to execute incisive runs into the box. But the U.S. international is more involved in the build-up and creates more chances, as noted with his 0.1 xG assisted per 90.

Altidore's radar contains a smaller sample size of opponents, but the numbers are in line with his 2018 and 2019 outputs.

Nashville is a middle-of-the-pack side in terms of pressures in the attacking third, per The team occasionally drops back and absorbs pressure, so it might behoove TFC to have Altidore on the pitch if that situation presents itself.

Delgado and Piatti returning might be the biggest boons for TFC, though, regardless of who starts up front. Alejandro Pozuelo has obvious chemistry with Piatti, plus their interchanging positions adds improvisation and fluidity to the attack.

But Delgado's impact on TFC's performance is largely understated.

Take the 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew – a team that easily qualified for the playoffs – as an example. Delgado (No. 8) pulled the strings as much as Pozuelo, the team's playmaker, in the pass map below. Note the thicker lines attached to Delgado, which indicates more passes attempted between the players.

Toronto FC's passing network vs. Columbus Crew on Sept. 27. (via Wyscout)

Now here's the passing network from the victory over Miami in October. Pozuelo (No. 10) was tasked with progressing the ball into the final third and creating chances. A box-to-box midfielder in Delgado's mould would've carried out the former responsibility.

Delgado might not be fit in time for the Nashville match, so there might be a similar trend on Tuesday night, unless Pozuelo goes full supernova and Akinola or Altidore contribute in the box.

Containing Nashville's free-flowing attack

For the first time all season, Nashville's three designated players – Jhonder Cadiz, Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar played together in the play-in game. Fittingly, it was in their first-ever playoff game against Inter Miami, which they comfortably won 3-0.

With all three likely starting on Tuesday against TFC, the hosts have to be wary of Nashville's big hitters. Cadiz is a prototypical target striker who wins aerial duels and drops deep to pull defenders out of position, Leal starts on the right but drifts inside throughout a game, while Mukhtar is a free-roaming playmaker.

All three connected brilliantly to set up a penalty for Nashville against Miami, and it highlighted their respective qualities. Cadiz dropped deep, flicked it into Leal's path, who had cut inside, then Mukhtar made a run through the defence before drawing the foul.

It's unlikely TFC will be this discombobulated in the midfield, but with the full-backs pushing high up the pitch and Omar Gonzalez's weakness defending against long balls in isolation, counter-attacks could be a problem for Toronto.

Unleash Richie Laryea

One route to victory could be via Richie Laryea, whether it's off the bench or as a starter.

While he's filled in decently at left-back, bombing up and down the right side is clearly Laryea's strength. He's recorded four assists this season, three more than Auro Jr., even though he's earned more minutes than the Canadian.

However, it's Laryea's driving runs into the box and his vision that add another element to TFC's attack. Almost every assist has been created as a result of those situations.

Because of Laryea's fearlessness and smart movement in the final third, he's racked up more than seven deep progressions and 0.2 goals added per 90 minutes.

Richie Laryea's statistical radar during the 2020 season.

Nashville left-back Daniel Lovitz tends to perform poorly against runners, registering a 40 per cent tackling success rate against dribblers, so isolating Laryea against Lovitz might lead to some dangerous chances.

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