After working all season to claim home-field advantage, New York City FC must deal with a late switch in venues Wednesday night when it hosts Toronto FC at Citi Field in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Bronx Blues (18-6-10) play their games at Yankee Stadium, but the rainout before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Houston Astros created logistical problems that prevented the field from being turned around in time for NYCFC to host a match there.
The smaller, tighter field dimensions of Yankee Stadium proved problematic for opponents as NYCFC posted an 11-1-5 mark while conceding just 16 goals. They have played at Citi Field just once previously, wrapping up the 2017 regular season with a 2-2 draw versus Columbus as they shifted venues due to the Yankees playing in that postseason as well.
"I think we did all we could to put ourselves in the most advantageous position at this point in the season," keeper Sean Johnson told Pro Soccer USA. "And when you have home games, with the fans behind this, for me it doesn't matter where we are, we have to go in and take care of business. It's not enough to say playing at Citi Field is not an advantage for us because we are professionals."
The first-round bye NYCFC earned as the top seed in the Eastern Conference will have given them 17 days between matches, but the team did play a closed-door scrimmage against the Fire in Chicago last week. It gave coach Dome Torrent the opportunity to give runouts to Keaton Parks and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi to gage their potential availability for this match. Parks missed the final three matches of the regular season with a strained hamstring while Tajouri-Shradi sprained his right ankle after scoring the match-winner in their 2-1 win at Philadelphia on Oct. 6.
NYCFC finished with a club-record 63 goals as the attacking trio of Heber, Alexandru Mitrita, and Valentin Castellanos accounted for 38 of them and all reached double figures. Heber, who arrived in March, had a team-leading 15 goals in 22 matches and was shortlisted for MLS Newcomer of the Year.
Maxi Moralez recorded a league-leading 20 assists, becoming just the third player in MLS history to reach that mark along with Tampa Bay Mutiny superstar Carlos Valderrama (26 in 2000) and New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Klejstan (20, 2016).
Toronto FC claimed a semifinal spot with a 5-1 victory over D.C. United after extra time Saturday. The Reds nearly won the game in regulation but were forced into an additional half-hour after conceding a stoppage-time equalizer.
Greg Vanney's team, though, regrouped magnificently in the first extra period, scoring four times as Jonathan Osorio's brace was bracketed by goals from second-half substitutes Richie Laryea and Nick DeLeon. Marky Delgado scored the other goal for TFC, who matched a season high in goals despite playing without injured striker Jozy Altidore.
"On our best days, the mentality in this group has been so strong," talisman and midfielder Michael Bradley told the Toronto Sun. "When those lights come on bright, to have a group of guys who aren't scared and go after things and play and compete and leave everything they have on the field, I'm so proud of that."
Vanney used playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo in a false nine role with Altidore sidelined, and the Spaniard set up Osorio's second goal in the 103rd minute that provided a 4-1 advantage. Pozuelo has 12 goals and 12 assists, making him one of four players to reach double figures in both categories this season.
Toronto FC carries an 11-match unbeaten streak (5-0-6) into this contest and are waiting on the availability of both Altidore and center back Omar Gonzalez. The latter was a surprise late scratch from Vanney's XI due to a hamstring injury after not being on the team's injury report leading up to the game.
Altidore, who was second on the Reds with 11 goals despite ranking ninth among outfield players in minutes, has four goals and an assist in eight career matchups against NYCFC.
This is the second postseason meeting between the teams, with Toronto FC thrashing the Bronx Blues by a 7-0 aggregate over a two-legged 2016 semifinal series. Altidore scored in both contests, and Osorio added one in Toronto's 5-0 rout at Yankee Stadium in the second leg.
TFC also took four of the six points in this year's two matches, riding a brace by Pozuelo to a 4-0 victory at home in March. The Spaniard converted a tying penalty in the first half of a 1-1 draw at Yankee Stadium in the most recent meeting Sept. 11.
The winner of this game will play either reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United or Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference final Oct. 30.