Butler: Once again, Toronto prove they're (still) the team to beat

TORONTO – It was a game billed as a battle of two of the top teams in Major League Soccer, a game played in front of a sellout crowd at BMO Field and in front of a nationwide audience across two countries.

But as Toronto FC proved in a decisive 4-0 victory over New York City FC on Sunday, there’s still quite a gap between the two Eastern Conference rivals.

For NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira, there’s no question TFC are the standard. And he’s also certain his team has a ways to go to get to the same level.

“Of course. This is the team to beat, no doubt about it,” Vieira said.

“There’s still a gap and it’s a big challenge for us,” he added. “We want to challenge them and we want to work hard because we are a quite really ambitious football club. But if we want to challenge them, we need to work harder.”

There are plenty of similarities between the teams, be it a willingness to spend on game-changing Designated Players, a longtime commitment to attractive attacking soccer or more recent defensive improvements.

However, Toronto on Sunday showed why they are a legitimate MLS Cup contender -- arguably the favorite -- while NYCFC has more work left.

It’s tough to say a 4-0 game comes down to one play, but both coaches circled back to a moment just past the hour mark. With TFC leading 1-0, David Villa played Maxi Moralez in on goal for a chance at the equalizer.

Instead, TFC defender Chris Mavinga made a saving tackle to rob the Argentine from a sure goal. Six minutes later, Sebastian Giovinco nets his second golazo of the game and the three points for the hosts were all but locked up.

“For me that’s maybe the game,” said Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney. “Last week was the same thing that led to a transition that led to their one goal that then cost us three points. We stayed with it and we eventually put them away. We can’t have those little letdowns where we can let another team in the game when we have them pretty much closed out the whole game.”

Sean Johnson can't stop Sebastian Giovinco's blistering free kick in the second half
USA Today Sports Images

TFC showed their ability to finish their chances. NYCFC left those opportunities wasted. Add to that a subpar performance and Vieira wasn’t surprised by the final scoreline.

“We had too many players who didn’t perform at the level I was expecting them to do for different reasons,” Vieira said. “And then when you play against one of the best, if not the best team in the league and your players don’t perform at their best, it’s difficult for us to take something from the game.”

That ruthlessness in the attacking third and not settling for anything but a clean sheet on Sunday is part of a change in culture that Michael Bradley has noticed in his time at TFC. At first, he was the lone pied piper trying to get the message across. Now it’s shared among a group of players who have been through some big games together over several seasons.

There's a hunger and determination to continue to push through the final whistle and not be satisfied that has separated TFC from their challengers.

“We continue to feel like there’s still big room for improvement,” Bradley said. “When we’re at our best, when we compete our hardest, when we’re focused on 90 minutes at a time and nothing more, we feel like there isn’t a team in this league we can’t beat, whether its home or away.”

TFC has also proven to have the deepest roster, battling through injuries and international call-ups to still get the necessary results. On Sunday, NYCFC missed four regular starters through injuries and suspensions, but the players called in didn’t respond to the challenge.

“I think we have to understand what a game of this importance means and what it takes to get a result out of the game,” NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. “I think we’ll take this experience going forward.”

The positive for NYCFC is that there is usually a bounce back from a poor performance – and that may bode well with the New York Red Bulls on the horizon in a week’s time.

Still, the see-saw nature of his side has flummoxed Vieira in his time as NYCFC coach.

“Its quite really frustrating because since I’m here, [we] have a lack of consistency in the results, in the way we play our game,” Vieira said. “I think when you look at way we played against Chicago with one man down and you look at the way we played today, its difficult for me to accept the lack of consistency in our performance.”