Larson: The one team in the East that can stop Toronto from hosting MLS Cup

The mind games have already started, as far as Greg Vanney is concerned.

Toronto FC’s manager – the surefire MLS Coach of the Year – made note of New York City FC head coach Patrick Vieira’s recent "psychological play.”

With his team falling behind TFC’s blistering Supporters’ Shield-leading pace, Vieira made it clear that his Bronx Blues won’t catch the Reds.

Vieira is right, of course. But that didn’t stop Vanney from warning that NYCFC might be the scariest team in this year’s playoff picture not named Toronto FC.

"I think it would be me doing a disservice to New York City if I weren’t to say they’d be the other team people have to be aware of,” Vanney said.

"Having said that,” Vanney quickly added, "I think every team is dangerous in the entire Eastern Conference – and in different ways."

Atlanta United's speed up front and attacking might has many crossing their fingers for an Atlanta-TFC two-legged series. The New York Red Bulls’ relentless press is something most teams would like to avoid come Halloween. And to their credit, Crew SC are one of two Eastern Conference teams to beat Toronto FC this season before nearly repeating the feat.

"I just look at the quality of the teams and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say the East will have the top five teams (in the Supporters’ Shield standings),” Vanney wagered.

At this point, Vanney knows his team will have to see off at least one of the aforementioned squads in a two-leg series come November.

But while potential playoff matchups shift on a weekly basis, here are three reasons why New York City FC could be TFC’s biggest hurdle to hosting a second straight MLS Cup.

History as motivation

Vanney suggested the Frenchman’s white flag-waving might be a ruse to "wind up" his team entering the final month of the regular season.

Remember, Toronto FC have absolutely owned New York City since late last year, when the Reds embarrassed them 7-0 on aggregate in the 2016 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

What’s more, Toronto FC has outscored Vieira’s boys since then by a combined score of 13-2 – a figure that doesn’t exactly scream "competitive playoff series.”

But lopsided numbers like that often spur something within a group that’s eager to set things right after serving as TFC’s punching bag for an entire year.

If these two sides indeed meet in the postseason, expect Vieira to remind his locker room that TFC hasn’t just beaten them. They’ve been embarrassed.

The real "King"

The real "king” in this league isn’t David Accam.

No, it’s King David Villa.

While TFC held Villa goalless in last year’s playoffs, the 2016 MVP has scored seven times against the Reds in their previous seven regular season encounters.

In a league defined by the small margins that separate teams during the course of a 34-game season, a player of Villa’s caliber can shift the margins in NYCFC’s favor.

Villa – along with TFC’s Sebastian Giovinco – is one of two players in MLS who opposing teams struggle to prepare for.

Their individual qualities usually supersede any kind of hapless defensive schemes drawn up by opposing MLS coaches they’ve repeatedly buried since 2015.

Home Cooking

Unprompted, Vanney refers to New York City’s in-game experience at Yankee Stadium as "interesting.”

"Obviously they play on a unique surface, in a unique stadium, on a unique field,” Vanney says.

Strange things happen at Yankee Stadium – and usually in NYCFC’s favor (they're 10W-2L-3D at home thus far).

While the conditions are equal for both teams in Yankee Stadium’s tighter confines, the Reds would rather play an away leg on a pitch that suits their ability to move the ball.

Case in point, Toronto FC completed an unconscionable 828 passes in a 4-0 dismantling of the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend.

No visiting team has completed more than 600 passes at Yankee Stadium this season.

The venue doesn’t lend itself to expansive football – which could mean trouble for the Reds, eventually.

It also could mean the best team in the league will need to win dirty on occasion – something it did in playoff wins over Philadelphia, Montreal and NYCFC a year ago.

"I just think the playoffs in the East are going to be a dogfight," Vanney summarized, "and you want to position yourselves the best you possibly can and be in the best form you can before getting into them.”

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