Jozy Altidore’s ailing quad aside, perhaps the biggest is whether to stick with Laurent Ciman at center back or insert Omar Gonzalez. The Belgian World Cup veteran helped the club reach this stage, while the US men’s national team veteran has missed all three Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff matches thus far.
“It’s always a challenge,” admitted Vanney. “Whether you leave guys out or put guys in, everybody wants to play, it’s the championship game.”
It’s not a straightforward decision, and one Vanney has mulled over as Gonzalez (hamstring) has worked back to full fitness.
“We’re going to pick the eleven we feel gives us the best chance to start the game off and get it going in the right direction,” Vanney said. “That doesn’t mean that team is going to go win the game, it means they will get us started. As we’ve seen, our substitutes have come on and had a huge impact in this whole [postseason].”
Gonzalez’s absence from the lineup for the Round One clash against D.C. United came as a surprise, but in his absence, the central duo of Ciman and Chris Mavinga has been solid. The Reds haven’t posted a shutout in three playoff games, but they’ve also helped the club return to a third MLS Cup in four years.
“The defensive group has held strong and dealt with a lot of situations,” said Vanney. “Laurent has been great, Chris has been great, the backline has been solid.”
Ciman’s distribution was pivotal in the 2-1 Conference Final win over Atlanta United, as his cross-field ball found Nicolas Benezet for the equalizing goal after Quentin Westberg’s massive penalty save on Josef Martinez offered Toronto a lifeline.
Since joining midseason from Liga MX side Pachuca, Gonzalez has made 14 starts, and Toronto holds a 7-1-6 record in those matches. Having largely recovered from the hamstring injury that saw him miss playoff games against D.C. United and New York City FC, Vanney said the defender was an option against Atlanta.
“From a health standpoint he was in a good spot, from a training standpoint he just hadn’t had many full sessions under his belt,” explained Vanney. “I considered it at various times in the game – the fact that we were doing a fair amount of defending, what that would look like – but I felt we needed more legs on the front half of the field to try to give ourselves the best chance to win.”
Whatever direction Vanney leans, he has history in making such tough calls. Ahead of the 2017 MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, Eriq Zavaleta, a key piece of TFC’s 3-5-2, was left out as the side shifted to a 4-4-2 diamond to beat the Sounders 2-0.
“The decisions are about the game,” said Vanney. “Everybody understands that. Everybody is trying to win this game, that’s the objective. We’re all trying to find the best solution to go out there and win the game in Seattle.”