Major League Soccer laid the no-respect card in front of Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney on Wednesday. Not only was New York City FC striker David Villa not suspended for his kick on TFC's midfielder Armando Cooper in the first game of the Eastern Conference semi-final, he was one of three finalists as the MLS's most-valuable player while TFC was snubbed entirely for the league's individual awards.
But Vanney took the high road.
"I said my piece on [Villa's kick] after the game and now it remains focused on ourselves and our attention to the details that are going to be important in New York," Vanney said Wednesday after a TFC training session. "As a group, all of our goals were team goals, that's for certain.
"All of the trophies are irrelevant if we can lift the last trophy at the end of the year, hopefully at BMO [Field]."
Nevertheless, the Villa decision – which Vanney suggested after the first game of the series should be a suspension – and the MVP exclusion of TFC striker Sebastian Giovinco, who led the league in regular-season points with 17 goals and 15 assists, were considered a slap in the face by many. The MLS's own website said Giovinco's omission "might be the biggest MVP snub in MLS history." Voting for the awards is done equally by players, MLS club executives including coaches, and the media.
Vanney and TFC player Drew Moor also have a valid complaint for not making the final three in the coach-of-the-year and defender-of-the-year awards, respectively. However, when pressed, Vanney would only allow that some of the awards decisions "are ridiculous" but "our focus is on New York City this weekend."
This philosophy may be puzzling to Toronto sports fans, who have long loved to be outraged by real or imagined slights from the nabobs of the professional leagues or the big U.S. TV networks. Think Bob Costas, NBC and the 1989 American League Championship Series when he said, "Elvis has a better chance of coming back than the Jays," after the Oakland A's had a three-run lead late in Game 1.
Vanney did indicate the players might use the snubs as motivation Sunday night when they play the second and final game of the aggregate-goal series at Yankee Stadium. But the Villa ruling would not be a distraction, he added.
The decision by MLS, which goes against previous suspensions this season, including one to Cooper for kicking an opponent, did not appear to surprise anyone with the team.
Since Villa scored 23 goals for New York City this season and added four assists, keeping him in the series is a huge break for NYCFC, which goes into the game down two goals in the total-goal series. But the players, publicly anyway, shrugged it off.
"Whether he was going to be on the field or not wasn't going to change our mentality," Moor said. "As players, we can't decide. All we do is prepare."
TFC captain Michael Bradley went one step further. He claimed to like the decision if it meant MLS was taking a permanent step away from the kinds of suspensions handed out in the regular season, such as the one-game ban given to Cooper.
"I think the league and the disciplinary committee went overboard in terms of retroactive suspensions," Bradley said. "If this is the first step to what I would call the right direction in terms of letting games play, understanding referees make decisions on the field and you can't go back and re-ref every single game on Monday morning, I'm okay with that.
"I couldn't care less in terms of whether [Villa] plays, doesn't play. It doesn't change anything for us. Ultimately, it gets filed under things that are out of our control."
What the Reds are concerned about is containing a New York team that is expected to come hard from the start in the hopes of an early goal, given Toronto's two-goal lead. New York led the MLS with 62 goals this season, in part because the confines of Yankee Stadium mean their pitch is the smallest allowed by international rules, which is an advantage for scoring.
But NYCFC also has to be careful with the aggressive play shown in the first game as five of their players drew yellow cards. MLS rules call for a one-game suspension in the playoffs for any player who draws two yellow cards in the postseason.
"It's going to be a fast-paced game just by virtue of the dimensions of the field," said Vanney, who also expects a physical game like the first one. "We need to stay focused on getting our goals and protecting our box like it's the end of the world."