TORONTO — While Toronto FC is still waiting to clinch its first-ever playoff spot, it is well-placed in the tight Eastern Conference as the regular season nears its close.
Like a closer in a thoroughbred race, Greg Vanney's team it is making ground when it counts.
Having played the first seven games of the season on the road due to stadium renovations, Toronto is benefitting from a run of home games and some good form to close out the campaign.
"We always circled this part of the season as sort of moving day," said Vanney. "This is the time in our season where we've got to continue to take steps forward, both in our individual and collective performances but also in points ... This is why I think we could be a very very dangerous team at the end of the year because we have an opportunity right now at home to build on all those things."
Toronto is firing on all cylinders up front with Jozy Altidore (12 goals) become more integrated in the attack alongside MVP contender Sebastian Giovinco (21 goals, 15 assists).
"It's the right time of the year to be feeling like we're rounding into form. There's no question about that," said captain Michael Bradley, whose own influence continues to grow.
Vanney's team has won three straight and two of its final three game are at BMO Field, where Toronto is 10-4-1. Two of those home contests are against teams — the New York Red Bulls and Columbus — above it in the East standings. Toronto closes out the regular season in Montreal, currently sixth in the East.
Other results the last two weeks have helped Toronto's cause.
Plus Toronto is healthy with Vanney able to field arguably his first-choice starting 11 in Saturday's 3-1 win over the visiting Philadelphia Union.
Toronto has a bye this week and doesn't play against until Oct. 14 when it hosts Columbus. It needs just one point to secure its first-ever post-season berth.
The coach and team speak as one, however, when it comes to making the playoffs.
"It's step one along the way," said Bradley. "Just getting to the playoffs is nothing to be too exited about,. You have to make the playoffs to have a chance to win and want to win."
As it stands today, fifth-place Toronto (14-13-4, 46 points) is one point behind fourth-place Columbus (13-11-8, 47 points) and third-place New England (13-11-8, 47 points). Second-place D.C. United (14-12-6, 48 points) is just two points away.
The top six teams in each conference make the post-season with the top two teams on each side getting a first-round bye. The third- and fourth-ranked clubs open at home
"That can make the world of difference," said Bradley.
Toronto is bidding to climb the standings so it can avoid opening with a playoff game on the road, where it is 4-9-3. TFC has not won away since June 6 — an 0-5-2 run including four straight losses.
Back home, meanwhile, Vanney believes his team is finally turning BMO Field into a fortress
"Between the stadium, our fans, the city, our team, the performances that we're putting together at home, I think it's quickly becoming a place that teams don't necessarily think they're going to come away with something when they come to Toronto. And that's the feeling we want them to have."
"We have more work to do for that to become the real reality but I think we're on the right way," he added.
Playing at home allows players to live their normal routine, minimizing stress and other disruptions. It has paid off for Toronto.
"We feel good about the way we've played at home this year," said Bradley. "It doesn't mean that we've not let a few games slip away but by and large when you look at the way we've played here, the results, it's certainly something to be proud of."
Bradley singled out the Toronto fans for their support and the stadium groundskeeping crew for "by far the best field in MLS this year."
In beating Philadelphia, Toronto added to its single-season franchise record for wins (14), home wins (10), points (46) and goals for (55).
Vanney's 16th league win at the helm was also a franchise record.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press