NYCFC ready for Citi Field challenge against Toronto FC: "No excuse. We have to win"

FLUSHING, N.Y. – It was exactly two years ago when New York City FC played their first game at Citi Field, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson remembers it well. 

It was Decision Day presented by AT&T and, as is often the case, a lot was riding on their game against Columbus Crew SC as far as postseason seeding was concerned. 

After the 2-2 draw, Johnson said he recalled looking back at the giant screen in center field to see the other results on the day and to figure out who they’d play in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. 

Now, even more is on the line. NYCFC return to Flushing as the No. 1 seed in the East and meet Toronto FC in the conference semifinals Wednesday (7 pm ET | FS1, TVAS, TSN 1/4, FOX Deportes). The winner takes one step closer to MLS Cup. The loser goes home. 

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All things being equal, Johnson and his teammates would prefer to be playing this game in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium, something that became impossible after the Yankees advanced to the American League Championship Series. 

“From an aesthetic standpoint it's obviously a different stadium, but playing on this field with our fans in the stadium, it's going to feel like home,” Johnson said. “Obviously we trained today, gotten a good feel for the pitch. I think the pitch is in great condition going into tomorrow. We’ll approach it the same way.”

NYCFC had their one chance at a walkthrough on their temporary home pitch Tuesday morning, and the players gave the surface top marks. The size appeared to be the same as Yankee Stadium, so there should be some level of comfort, even if it’s in a different borough. 

“It’s grass, not artificial, so we don't need to talk about the pitch,” Alex Ring said. “I enjoyed the game when we played Columbus at Citi Field. It was a good game. It was, I believe, the last game of the regular season. I think it was good. Nothing to complain about it.”

NYCFC coach Dome Torrent was also quick to point out that the unfamiliar location of the match cannot, and will not, be used as an excuse. 

“It’s really good. The grass is perfect. It’s really good. I’ve never seen [Citi Field] before, but the feeling is good,” Torrent said. “I don’t want to waste time about the stadium because it is what it is, but it’s good. It’s really, really good. …We have to play here, no excuse. We have to win the game. If not it’s not about the stadium.”

It’s also not about injuries, and NYCFC have pretty much a clean bill of health for Wednesday night. Heber, who has been sidelined with calf discomfort, didn’t participate in a scrimmage against the Chicago Fire at SeatGeek Stadium last week. But Torrent is confident the Brazilian forward and MLS Newcomer of the Year finalist will play a role against Toronto FC. 

It just might not be from the start of the match. 

“Heber is ready to play. I don’t know if maybe he starts, maybe he can play 30-40 minutes, I don’t know. But he’s ready to play. He’s not injured right now,” Torrent said. “It’s good news for us. Every day I say the same because it’s the reality: I need to find the right players to play against Toronto. That means for me the best players are the players in that moment who have rhythm, more chances to play than other players.

Central midfielder Keaton Parks and winger Ismael Tajouri-Shradi each played 30-40 minutes against the Fire and are fully fit. 

Parks, who has been training fully for about two weeks now, said he pushed himself a bit extra against the Fire to regain the requisite levels of match fitness. 

As for the idea that NYCFC perhaps lost homefield advantage by moving the game from Bronx to Queens, Parks said there’s enough familiarity with the field and fan support to make it feel like home.  

“We definitely do [have homefield advantage],” Parks said. “I think our fans are going to show up like they have all year at Yankee Stadium, so it’s going to feel the same."