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Toronto FC's Jonathan Osorio, third from right, talks with head coach Greg Vanney, second from right, during first half MLS soccer action against Atlanta United, in East Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 18, 2020.

Jessica Hill/The Associated Press

Only two years ago, Jonathan Osorio finished one goal back of Sebastian Giovinco on the Toronto FC scoring charts, finding the back of the net a career-high 17 times.

By the time the 2020 Major League Soccer regular season wrapped up two weeks ago, that number had tumbled all the way down to one.

While part of that decrease is a reflection on this pandemic-shortened campaign, and part of it because of injuries that caused him to miss seven of the team’s 23 regular-season games, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

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Osorio, the longest-tenured member of the TFC squad and the only player to reach 250 appearances for the club, has made a concerted effort to adjust his game. He’s reined in his natural inclination to push forward into the opposition penalty box in search of goals in favour of defensive responsibility and team success.

“I’ve put more of an emphasis on helping our back four as much as we can and locking down the midfield,” the 28-year-old says. “On our team we believe that if we win the midfield it gives us a great chance always to win the game.”

Alongside Michael Bradley and Marky Delgado, Osorio has been a key part of a trio that has formed the starting midfield in each of TFC’s past two MLS Cup final appearances. With Toronto set to embark on a quest for a fourth title-game appearance in five years (and a second championship) against Nashville SC when the MLS playoffs begin Tuesday, any success will depend on establishing a solid foundation in the middle of the park.

It’s something that head coach Greg Vanney has tasked his midfield with in each of the team’s previous runs to the MLS Cup final, demanding what he calls a “playoff mindset.” On each occasion he has asked his midfielders to match up with their counterparts one-on-one defensively and take them out of the game.

“How you play with the ball is not always beautiful, sometimes it’s more of a workmanlike grind and trying to dictate the game more defensively,” Vanney says. “In all three of our runs they’ve really shifted to focus on that side of it and to be excellent on the defending side to help us control games.”

The results have been there for all to see. In 15 playoff games across those three MLS Cup final runs between 2016 and 2019, Toronto FC only gave up more than one goal in three games, including three in last year’s final loss to Seattle. The remainder included six shutouts and conceding one goal in the other six games.

Nashville, the highest-ranked seed to survive the Eastern Conference play-in round, faces No. 2 TFC before empty stands at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday. No. 8 New England, which needed a 95th-minute Gustavo Bou goal to edge No. 9 Montreal 2-1 in the other play-in round game, visits No. 1 Philadelphia later Tuesday.

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When Osorio, Bradley and Delgado have all played together this year, the results have been similarly dominant. TFC has conceded just one goal in games in which the trio have all factored into. The problem is that’s only happened on five occasions, with all three making the starting lineup for just three games.

“When you talk about football at a high level, what goes on in the midfield is so important and on a lot of days really tilts the bar in terms of which team is going to have the upper hand,” Bradley says.

“On a lot of days we’ve been able to find the right balance in our midfield between football and qualify and skill and possession, but also steel and strength and mobility and combining that also with brains, intelligence and balance.”

The TFC captain missed the start of the season after having ankle surgery last winter, and then missed another nine games after suffering a knee strain against Montreal back in September.

While he says it’s disappointing that the trio couldn’t have been on the field more frequently this year, he looks forward to what they can do together in the playoffs. Osorio and Bradley both factored in TFC’s 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls that brought the curtain down on their regular season, and while Delgado missed the last three games of the season through injury, he is back in training for the team.

Bradley, a former player for AS Roma in Italy’s Serie A and Borussia Monchengladbach in the German Bundesliga, as well as flying the flag for the United States in two World Cups, says the familiarity among the three players breeds levels of comfort and confidence that are “not easy to find.”

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TFC and Vanney can also take comfort in the new generation of midfielders eager to step into the fray when an opportunity is presented to them. Players such as 22-year-old Liam Fraser, 20-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg and 18-year-old Ralph Priso-Mbongue have but a handful of appearances among them this season, but each has shown an ability to rise to the occasion.

Given the team was in contention for the Supporters’ Shield right up until the last weekend of the season, Vanney was left in an awkward position, trying to blood in the youngsters while also ensuring that the team could compete for another trophy.

“It’s trying to find the moments,” he says. “I’m excited about where these players are at and their potential and even where they are at the moment and I think they can help the team.”

Vanney’s team didn’t seem to need a whole lot of help down the stretch, relocating to Connecticut for its home games from early September and turning the University of Connecticut’s Pratt and Whitney Field into something of a fortress, going 4-1-1 there.

As the owner of the league’s second seed, TFC will enjoy home-field advantage in the playoffs until at least the Eastern Conference final, and will only relinquish it if it meets the Philadelphia Union at that point.

Having beaten the Union 2-1 in Hartford in early October, TFC knows how to beat the best team in the league this year. However, doubts may still be lingering following the 5-0 loss the Union dished out in their most recent meeting, on Oct. 24.

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But with Osorio just about ready to switch into playoff mode, he’s far from worried.

“It’s usually very close games and the smallest details are what make the difference,” he says of the MLS postseason. “So we have a really good understanding of that and we know that defensively if you’re tough, that’s what brings you to championship games and lets you win championships.”

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