A win Sunday in Cincinnati and league-leading Toronto FC clinches MLS playoff berth

A win Sunday in Cincinnati and Toronto FC becomes the first MLS team to clinch a playoff berth in the pandemic-rejigged season.

A tie might do it too.

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League-leading Toronto (10-2-4) can qualify for the post-season with a single point at Nippert Stadium, providing Inter Miami loses to or ties Houston Dynamo and the Chicago Fire lose to D.C. United.

Toronto goes into only its third-ever meeting with Cincinnati (3-9-4) as a heavy favourite, given the two teams are headed in different directions. Despite having to play south of the border due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Canadian nomads hold a 21-point edge over Cincinnati.

TFC has won four straight and is undefeated in six (5-0-1). The four recent victories came against teams in the top six of the Eastern Conference: New York City FC, Columbus Crew SC, Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution.

Cincinnati, a second-year MLS team that languishes in 13th place in the East (and 25th in the 26-team league), has lost three straight while being outscored 9-0, failed to score in its last four matches and has just one win in its last 11 outings (1-6-4).

"To play against these teams, you can prove yourself," Cincinnati coach Jaap Stam said of facing high-flying Toronto.

"It's a team that's well organized. They've got a lot of quality within their squad as well," he added. "But it's a challenge again for us. We've shown against other teams, even the last couple that we lost (to), that we can make it difficult for even the big teams. The only thing is we need to be cautious at certain times, to not give away the opportunities too easily.

"We know it's going to be a difficult game. We're going to be trying to make it difficult for them."

TFC has lost just two of 26 regular-season games (14-2-10, 52 points) since a 2-0 defeat at the New York Red Bulls on Aug. 3, 2019. Cincinnati's record over the same time period is 4-14-8 (20 points).

Still these are unusual times, with visiting teams mostly flying in and out on game-day to reduce the chance of infection.

Veteran defender Omar Gonzalez says Toronto will not make the mistake of underestimating Cincinnati.

"I think we know what can happen more than anybody," he said. "We've dropped points this season against teams that we shouldn't have. We're still upset about those points that we dropped early on in the season knowing the team that we are. Knowing we always show up against elite teams, the top-of-the table teams and then we drop points against teams that aren't at the top."

'Cincinnati hasn't been doing so hot but we have," he added. "And it's on us to be as consistent as we can week-in week-out. No matter who we're facing, we have to continue to be us."

Toronto gave up late goals in early-season ties with San Jose and D.C. United. And it conceded in the 76th minute in a 3-2 loss Sept. 5 in Vancouver.

Cincinnati is offensively challenged -- ranking 26th in goals, 26th in assists and tied for 25th in shots on goal. It has been shut out in 10 of 16 league outings this season, including nine of its last 11 games, and has scored more than one goal in a game just twice (and not since July 22).

No Cincinnati player has more than one goal. Toronto forward Ayo Akinola's eight goals matches the output of the entire Cincinnati roster.

With Sunday's game marking Toronto third in eight days -- and with fixtures next week against the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United -- Greg Vanney could dig deep into his roster.

While Jozy Altidore out for four to five weeks with a hamstring strain, Akinola continues to lead the Toronto attack. Going into Wednesday's match in New England, the 20-year-old led the league averaging 0.92 goals per 90 minutes this season. Akinola scored in the 1-0 win, upping that average to 0.94 goals.

Toronto has six regular-season games remaining after Sunday.

TORONTO FC (10-2-4) AT FC CINCINNATI (3-9-4)

Sunday, 7:30 p.m. at Nippert Stadium

COMPARISON: After 16 games of its 2017 championship season, Toronto had a 9-2-5 record, two points behind its current 2020 total.

HISTORY: The teams have met just twice with Toronto winning both times, including a 5-1 decision in Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 2019. TFC defender Eriq Zavaleta was sent off that day.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: Second-year Cincinnati, with nine career regular-season wins, is still looking to reach double digits. It also took TFC two seasons to do it.

LEAVING HOME: Sunday is the first game of a five-game home stand for Cincinnati that marks its farewell to Nippert Stadium. The Orange and Blue open their new home next spring.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020

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