With the top spot in the league already assured, TFC can head into Sunday's match at Atlanta United (4 pm ET; TSN4 in Canada, MLS LIVE in the US) with the playoffs – and maybe a bit of history – in mind.
Head coach Greg Vanney stressed the need to get sharp ahead of the postseason and called Sunday’s match “a great opportunity” for TFC to test themselves in front of a huge crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The game will have intensity and presence because there are 72,000 people there. You've got to be on your game, focused,” said Vanney. “There's a different feel. You don't get in front of 70,000 people every time you play in this league. For some of our guys, [that] may be a new experience. That's good. Guys will be ready.”
Atlanta enter the weekend in fourth in the East. A win would at minimum guarantee them home field in the Knockout Round. If results go their way elsewhere, the Five Stripes could move as a high as second-place and secure a bye to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Toronto are expecting a big fight on Sunday.
“A team that is going to do everything they can to win,” defender Eriq Zavaleta said when asked what he expected from Atlanta. “They're going to come out with a lot of energy; understanding that we're the team to beat. They're going to want to prove themselves.”
There is an element of reconnaissance to this weekend's encounter as well. Toronto could very well end up seeing Atlanta in the playoffs, potentially in the Eastern Conference Championship series.
“It's great for us to go there, a team we could see at some point in the playoffs,” said Vanney. “We've never been to Atlanta before, played in that stadium. To have that experience, should you happen to go there, is valuable. It'll be good to have one more look at them.”
“They've done a spectacular job of bringing in great young players, who are hungry and dynamic, have a lot of ability,” said Vanney. “[They've] put together a team that really makes sense; they fit together. It's not just a group of players, they make a good team, play off of each other well and make sense for the style of play [manager Tata Martino] wants. It's a well-crafted group.”
Vanney was effusive with his praise of Atlanta, but he did throw in a bit of a qualifier, too.
“Coming into this season as a franchise, they've had more resources than ever in the history of the league,” he said. “It might be easier to have a blank slate than to take over a team that hasn't been doing well and become a contender.”
While Sunday’s game will be the first-ever match between the sides in Atlanta, the two clubs have met once before, drawing 2-2 at BMO Field on April 8. Villalba scored twice on either side of goals from Sebastian Giovinco and Justin Morrow.
Toronto struggled with Atlanta's rapid transitions that day, but, as they have for all 33 previous matches this season, they’ll approach Sunday’s contest with their usual mentality and lineup.
“It's about us, about the continuity of our group, the links of group,” said Vanney. “We've played an entire year of games, unless we pull out a bunch of jokers that nobody knows about, we are who we are.
“We can make some tactical adjustments, little things here and there – we may or may not show any of that on the weekend. They know who our players are, have a good sense of one, or two, or three ways we might play. It's not rocket science.”