TORONTO - The time is now for Toronto FC.
With just four games remaining in its MLS regular season, and with one game in hand on the five teams above it in the Eastern Conference, Toronto (11-12-7) needs three points from Wednesday's home outing against the Houston Dynamo (10-14-6).
A win and Toronto dislodges Columbus to move into the fifth and final playoff spot in the East, with away games at New York and New England and a visit from the Montreal Impact to come.
"We're looking at all of them as games that we really want to win, must win," coach Greg Vanney said after practice Tuesday. "Our goals is to pick up points in each of these matches."
The margin of error depends on the performance of the teams immediately above them (Columbus and New York), he added.
"But, for us, we want to control our destiny. We don't want to have it in the hands of anybody else, So we're looking at these games as must-win."
By his estimate, seven points out of 12 "might" get them into the playoffs. Nine "pretty much assures" it.
Unlike his coach, star midfielder Michael Bradley does not seem to be crunching the numbers although he acknowledges the margin for error is very small.
"We're not spending too much time thinking about what ifs and trying to calculate points in other games at this moment," he said. "For us, it's about the four games that we have left and knowing that they're going to be four difficult games. But we have absolute confidence in ourselves that we can go out and, really in every game, get three points."
The BMO Field contest may fly under the radar, given that it goes up against the Maple Leafs' season opener against Montreal at the nearby Air Canada Centre.
Toronto, which came into the league in 2007, has never made the playoffs. While it has set franchise marks for wins (11) and points (40) in 2014, TFC has made the post-season its benchmark this season.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment spent millions in overhauling the club. Bradley (US$6,500,000) ranks third on the league salary chart while striker Jermain Defoe is fourth ($6,180,000).
Poor performance has already cost manager Ryan Nelsen and five of his assistant coaches their jobs.
The eight-place Dynamo, meanwhile, can move within one point of Toronto with a win Wednesday.
Houston will have to do it without Honduran midfielders Boniek Garcia and Luis Garrido, who are away on international duty.
"It's significant," Toronto defender-midfielder Warren Creavalle, who came over from Houston in a July trade, said of the losses.
"The game is massive for both teams," he added. "We're both under the red line, trying to get back above it."
Toronto got a break on the international score with Bradley and Canadians Jonathan Osorio, Dwayne De Rosario and Kyle Bekker avoiding national team call-ups.
Toronto's Doneil Henry, Manny Aparicio, Quillan Roberts and Jordan Hamilton are in the Canadian camp but none are starters. Hamilton is currently on loan to a Portuguese second-tier club.
Both teams are coming off weekend losses that ended unbeaten runs.
Toronto lost 3-0 to the Galaxy in Los Angeles. It was unbeaten in three games before that, earning seven of nine points against Chicago, Chivas and Portland.
Houston suffered a 1-0 road loss to the New York Red Bulls. The Dynamo had gone unbeaten (3-0-2) in their five previous games.
The good news for Vanney is that his team is healthy. Defoe returned to action in L.A., coming in off the bench with 30 minutes. Brazilian striker Gilberto (hamstring) and fullback Mark Bloom (leg) are both healthy.
Vanney said Defoe has "looked proper over the last few days."
The manager has choices to make at striker with Defoe, Gilberto and Luke Moore vying for two positions and at fullback between Creavalle and Bloom.
It's interesting, given the investment in designated players Defoe and Gilberto, that Vanney says he doesn't really know his preferred partnership up front.
"It's tough to say because I haven't seen them together recently," he said of Defoe-Gilberto.
Vanney said he looked forward to seeing the two perform together but made a point of praising English striker Luke Moore as well.
"It's hard to say what the best two is," he said of his strike force. "I think we have three outstanding choices there and other guys, by the way, who can help us out in the stretch run here as we push for wins."
The team accountants may think differently. Moore's salary of $128,333.33 pales in comparison to that of Defoe and Gilberto ($1,205,000).
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