Burning questions: Who does TFC want to avoid in playoffs?

Sportsnet's James Sharman joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the incredible regular season record set by Toronto FC after their tie against Atlanta United FC and if their playoff performance will determine if their season was a success or failure.

Some burning questions come to mind about Toronto FC ahead of the start of the MLS playoffs…

Who does TFC want to avoid in the Eastern Conference semifinals?

Finishing first in the MLS standings has its advantages. For Toronto FC, it means it gained a first-round bye in the playoffs, and will have home-field advantage all the way through the post-season, including for the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9.

The disadvantage is the Reds have to wait until the first round concludes over Wednesday and Thursday to see who they’ll face, and will then only have a few days to prepare to play on the road in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. What we do know is that the they’ll face one of the New York Red Bulls, the Columbus Crew or Atlanta United FC in the next round.

Toronto had a winning record this season against New York and Columbus, but it failed to beat Atlanta, battling to a pair of draws against the expansion franchise. In Sunday’s regular-season finale, the Reds had to twice come from behind to salvage a point in Atlanta, who were without Miguel Almiron, one of the top attacking midfielders in MLS.

Atlanta played TFC close in both contests, so maybe the Georgia club has the best chance of upsetting the Reds. But forward Jozy Altidore doesn’t seem too concerned who Toronto’s opponent will be in the next round.

“It doesn’t matter to me, man. It doesn’t matter where we’re going, our objective doesn’t change,” Altidore replied when asked after Sunday’s game if he expected to return to Atlanta next week.

Coach Greg Vanney also didn’t bite when asked about potential matchups, but he did issue one warning.

“I’m not in the business of saying who’s the best. Except for us, I’ll take that,” Vanney said. “It’s a very difficult Eastern Conference with a lot of teams able to beat a lot of teams.”

Will the Reds change from their preferred 3-5-2 formation?

Vanney pulled a joker out of the deck in Atlanta when he made two lineup changes, swapping in Steve Beitashour for Nicolas Hasler, and Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio for defender Eriq Zavaleta. With the new faces came a new formation, as Vanney moved away from his preferred 3-5-2 and went with a fluid system that switched between a 4-3-3 and a flat 4-4-2.

Asked by Sportsnet about the formation change, Vanney said it was something he had in his “back pocket” and that he wanted to try mixing it up ahead of the post-season.

“It’s important to have a little bit of versatility, and to be able to adapt as you go into the playoffs. People have seen us in one [formation] for the vast majority of the year. We’ve played in a diamond [midfield] a few times this year, and looked really good in that,” Vanney explained.

“It means that when teams start to prepare for us they have to think about a little bit more than just the straight forward [3-5-2] look.”

All that being said, it’s hard to imagine Vanney straying from his 3-5-2 setup – it’s what brought TFC to this point. The formation change on the weekend was about the Reds stretching their tactical legs, so to speak, and to put a little bit of doubt in the minds of their future opponents. Keep them guessing.

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Has Osorio made a case to be a starter?

Osorio was given a rare start on Sunday due to the formation change, and the Canadian was a key cog in TFC’s attack for most of the game – he played two sublime balls for Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco that sent the forwards clear on goal, but they squandered both chances.

Osorio was a regular fixture in the starting 11 last season, including during the Reds’ run to the MLS Cup final. This year, his playing time has been significantly reduced due to the off-season addition of Spanish midfielder Victor Vazquez and the emergence of Marky Delgado.

Still, the Canadian has been one of TFC’s most consistent performers the past two months, whether he’s been used as a starter or a substitute, raising the question as to whether he’ll be used more prominently in the playoffs. Vanney appears open to the idea, hinting that Osorio’s chance might come if he decided to go with a different formation.

“He’s been really sharp for the past couple of months. … Every time we’ve put him on the field he’s been good, and tonight was no different. We adjusted our [formation] to approach this in a different way, which meant that he got the shout,” Vanney said after the Atlanta game.

“He had some good combinations that led to [scoring] opportunities, so it’s good to have him sharp. It gives us options.”

Toronto FC supporters get an inside look into their favourite club every Monday night at 11 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. It’s an all-access pass with co-hosts Brendan Dunlop and Thomas Michalakos as they interview the biggest names around the team and preview and review of every TFC match.

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