The Black-and-Red have a chance to take a big step in the race for the 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs against the reigning MLS Cup champions, Toronto FC. Though the Reds will not be defending their title after failing to qualify for the playoffs this season, Toronto have no problem trying to play spoiler when they visit Audi Field for the first time.
Toronto will be without several of their key players when they arrive Wednesday night. Key contributors Sebastian Giovinco (Italy), Michael Bradley (United States), Jonathan Osorio (Canada) and Marky Delgado (United States) will all be absent while on international duty. Meanwhile, eight-goal scorer Victor Vazquez underwent season-ending knee surgery earlier this week while forward Jozy Altidore is questionable for the match. Despite the absences, Toronto knows they are playing for pride.
“We play D.C. [United], a team fighting for the playoffs, we’re not going to roll over for them," Toronto head coach Greg Vanney said. "Then we play our rivals, Montreal [Impact], and then we play an Atlanta [United], which is always a fun game and they're playing for 69 points. These are meaningful games for us.”
While Toronto considers their final games of the season meaningful, they are absolutely critical for United as they attempt to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
Following the Black-and-Red's 1-0 victory over FC Dallas, United climbed above the playoff line for the first time season, pulling one point ahead of the Montreal Impact for sixth place in the east. A win against the defending champions on Wednesday would pad their lead to four points and push Montreal to the brink of elimination and make Sunday's match against NYCFC decisive in the playoff chase.
For their part, United have not allowed themselves to get comfortable down the stretch.
“It doesn’t do it for me,” United Head Coach Ben Olsen said after the win against Dallas. “It will when this is all said and done, if we’re still above that line. That’s the goal. I’ve been through too many of these seasons to understand how crazy the last month is and how dire each point is going down the last couple of weeks.”
United midfielder Luciano Acosta will play a big part in reaching that goal. Acosta was on fire in the month of September, scoring four goals in five games on his way to earning Player of the Month honors, but has been held scoreless in his first two matches in October. That's not for lack of effort, though, as Acosta has continued to drive the United attack as the creative force in central midfield. While he was held scoreless in United's wins over Chicago and Dallas, Acosta still managed six shots on goal in the two matches and is primed to break out of his mini slump Wednesday night.
He will be facing Alex Bono in net for Toronto, who has been shaky as of late. In Bono's last four starts for the Reds, Toronto has gone 2-2-0 while surrendering eight goals. Though he has slumped recently, Bono is still extremely capable, and is not far removed from leading Toronto to the CONCACAF Champions League Final earlier this season and MLS Cup last season.
The Black-and-Red know that they have not earned anything yet, and as such, they know that to underestimate an opponent regardless of the circumstances can lead to defeat. That mindset will be needed on Wednesday as they look to continue their march to the playoffs.