Pozuelo makes difference for Toronto FC in wild playoff affair

Toronto FC midfielder Nick DeLeon (18) celebrates his goal with teammate Alejandro Pozuelo (10) during extra time MLS playoff soccer action against the D.C. United, in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Toronto FC is going to the Eastern Conference final after defeating the East’s top seed, New York City FC, 2-1 at Citi Field on Wednesday night.

Just like the first meeting of 2019 between these two teams, it was Alejandro Pozuelo who made the difference for TFC, recording a brace in the victory. However, this was a close call for the visitors before Pozuelo’s winning penalty.

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s Eastern Conference semifinal.

TFC’s midfield dazzles, then retreats

Shutting down New York City FC is difficult considering their attacking fluidity. Few teams are blessed with NYCFC’s pace, precision and technique in the final third, which was integral to the team claiming first place in the Eastern Conference this season.

As the graphic below illustrates, NYCFC tends to build play slowly in their defensive third but ramp up the pace as it moves closer to the opponent’s goal.

MLS team passing progressiveness in 2019. (via American Soccer Analysis)

However, if an opponent pressures NYCFC higher up the field, then that team can contain New York City’s lethal attack and create some dangerous chances in transition. This is a strategy Toronto FC replicated on Wednesday at Citi Field in the first half.

Toronto won possession higher up the pitch and wreaked havoc on NYCFC. The narrow pitch was clearly an advantage in this regard as it enabled TFC to play narrower, thus restricting the space around New York City’s defence and midfield.

TFC’s average positioning vs. NYCFC in the first half. (via SofaScore)
Recoveries (orange) and interceptions (blue) for Toronto FC in the first half. (via MLSSoccer.com)

In the second half, the momentum swung in favour of the hosts. NYCFC was distributing the ball quicker and more direct to counter TFC’s high press. Toronto coach Greg Vanney replaced winger Tsubasa Endoh with Nick DeLeon to form a diamond midfield in an effort to keep that pressure on New York City but it wasn’t too effective.

NYCFC’s passing in the first half (left) and second half. (via MLSSoccer.com)

Once NYCFC bypassed the centre circle, it was time to batten down the hatches. Maxi Moralez and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi cut inside to load the centre, Alexandru Mitrita roamed across the frontline to unsettle TFC’s defence and Valentin Castellanos was a handful for centre-back Laurent Ciman.

NYCFC’s average positioning vs. TFC. (via SofaScore)

Eventually, a piece of magic from Moralez set up Tajouri-Shradi’s equalizer, who was all alone at the back post.

Regardless, credit to Vanney for bringing on Richie Laryea when NYCFC was controlling the match. Left-back Ronald Matarrita likes to attack, and Laryea capitalized on this to draw the decisive penalty.

Pozuelo pounces

Without Jozy Altidore, who continues to nurse a quad injury, Alejandro Pozuelo had to deliver. He did exactly that, which was fitting given the opponent.

Pozuelo, just like his debut on March 29 versus NYCFC, scored twice in the conference semifinals. The Spaniard now has five goals against New York City, more than any other MLS team.

This was goal No. 4, which opened the proceedings.

Then, with the game on the line, Pozuelo was ice cold from the spot after an amazing effort from Laryea to win the late penalty.

Now an Eastern Conference final matchup on Oct. 30 with Atlanta United or the Philadelphia Union awaits.

Foul ball!

Most of the discussion on social media wasn’t even about the game itself. It was all about the view of the match on television.

With NYCFC’s home playoff matches temporarily moving to Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, there were expected to be some shortcomings, such as the pitch.

However, few could have expected to see this.

A club playing its home games at baseball stadiums is obviously not ideal. However, it’s inexcusable for fans to have an obstructed view on TV, especially for a playoff match involving the largest Canadian and American markets in MLS.

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