Randall Leal - Nashville SC - October 21, 2020
USA Today Sports Images

Nashville SC set sights on toppling Toronto FC as next step in journey to MLS elite

Nashville SC rookie fullback Alistair Johnston grew up in the Toronto area, and has watched Toronto FC's journey in MLS from an Eastern Conference cellar-dweller to a perennial championship contender the whole way through.

Johnston and his Nashville teammates will be taking on Toronto in their Round One matchup of the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs on Tuesday (8 pm | TV & streaming info), and speaking on a Sunday conference call with reporters, the Wake Forest product says that he sees a team that Nashville can take cues from in terms of how they've managed to establish such consistency.

"The development they've had and the success they've had over the past couple years just shows they're a club that's run pretty well, they know what they're doing up there," Johnston said. "And for us, that's I guess you could say footsteps we're trying to follow in as well. That's what where you want to be, you want to be competing for championships every year and this is kind of the first step in Nashville's chapter and history you could say towards making that next step to being a team that's competing for championships. It starts on Tuesday night. If we can keep the momentum going that we started with beating Miami I think that's another great step in the right direction."

The matchup certainly sets up an intriguing clash between Nashville's status as a first-year upstart eyeing a Cinderella run and a Toronto team that has been embarking on lengthy playoff runs for much of the past five years.

This season, the Reds had an array of challenges and obstacles, from a multitude of injuries, to having to temporarily relocate their home to Hartford, Connecticut due to travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Toronto were a Supporters' Shield contender until the season's final day, something Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said on Sunday is a testament to the quality of his team's upcoming opposition.

Full highlights: Nashville SC 3, Inter Miami CF 0

"I know the season probably didn't end the way they wanted it to, but let's be honest, if you're fighting for the Shield on the last day you're not doing a bad job," Smith said. "This group at full strength I think is are as good as it gets and their record will tell us that. They've taken part in three of the last championship games and they'll be no easy task for sure.

"But I also think there will be one or two things, of course, in a playoff game that will have an impact: One will be personnel for them. If they've got everyone fit and available then that will be a challenge for us. If they haven't, like a lot of other teams, whilst they've got a very good squad, I'm sure they'll be feeling as though there's areas that might be a little bit more vulnerable. So we'll see exactly what gets turned out on the day, either way, we know they've got such an experienced group of players, as experienced as you get in the playoffs, we'll have to be fully ready."

Nashville will be riding a wave of confidence after their Play-In Round blowout of Inter Miami on Friday, but Toronto presents an entirely different challenge. Specifically, Smith said, the attacking quality from the Reds is upper-tier in MLS, creating perhaps the most difficult task yet for a Nashville defense that emerged as the strength of the team in its expansion season.

"Just looking at their group, like a lot of good attacking teams, I think they're a prime example of a team that use that outside and fullback areas very, very well," Smith said. "They've got some nice athletes, they've got some very forward-thinking players.

"One of the dimensions of their group is their more creative and talented individuals, obviously [Alejandro] Pozuelo jumping off the page, being able to have options and athletic angles and opportunities to work those players into more aggressive areas. Guys like [Richie] Laryea I think have really come on a bundle over the course of this season, really shown some of their inner qualities: Athleticism, pace, bright, purposeful mind and with the constructive build-out that these teams, certainly the likes of Toronto have, it does make for a more challenging picture when you play against them."