Michael Bradley: “It’s still a team and a club that has the identity of wanting to play football. We respect them.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Michael Bradley doesn’t care about the numbers.

He’s more interested in the players that teams put on the field.

So, even though New York City FC reached the MLS Is Back Tournament knockout round by the skin of its teeth, he ignored that fact and that the team finished the group stage with a 1-2 record.

Toronto FC meets NYCFC in a Round of 16 encounter at ESPN Wide World of sports Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

“New York City is a good team. There are no two ways about it,” the Toronto FC captain said during a conference call with the media Friday. “We know them well. Obviously, the coach has changed this year and with that some of their ideas and the way they go about things are a little bit different. But it’s still a lot of the same players. I think it’s still a team and a club that has the identity of wanting to play football. We respect them. We have had a lot of big games over the last handful of the years. We certainly understand that we will need to be at our best to beat them on Sunday night.”

The Canadian team has been NYCFC’s playoff bogeyman the last few years, helping to usher the Bronx side out of the MLS playoffs. Even though City boasted the best Eastern Conference regular season record last year, underdog Toronto FC came into Citi Field and eliminated NYCFC from the playoffs.

Bradley admitted he didn’t know exactly what to expect of NYCFC in this competition.

“It’s a little it hard to know exactly given the circumstances,” he said. “Obviously, everybody was off for a long time. Everybody comes to this tournament a little bit short of real match preparation and in some ways you’re working on things and trying to get guys fit and sharp trying to make sure certain ideas are ingrained into the team collectively. You’re doing all of that as you’re playing important games.

“Not every result was not what they would have hoped for in the group stage. But again, it’s still a good team. They have good players. Tactically, they have a done a few things [differently] in these three games and even when you look at the first handful of games they played before the pandemic. So, we’ll continue to look closer at them over the next day or two. But again, it’s a team that’s core hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s a team that wants to play football. They want to have the ball. They want to to rotate certain guys around and ask questions of you. We’ll have to do a good job in those ways.”

Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney lavished praise of his Sunday foes.

“They are a very good team. They have very good players,” he said. “They have players who can make plays, who can hurt you. Systematically, they haven’t changed a ton. They are always somewhat in the vision of Man City or the City Group and how those teams play. So that hasn’t changed a lot.”

Vanney said that NYCFC was “positionally, very smart. Their movement is very good.”

“They haven’t maybe connected as well so far this season or in the tournament as they are capable of, but I think that at any point a team with that kind of quality can find that rhythm and be dangerous,” he added. “So, we have to continue to be diligent on how we defend, make sure we’re collected. We have to move the ball fast, raise our intensity, level. I think we have to better than we had done in the games leading up to this. I think we will.

“I think we’re a little more rested going into the night game in this round than we were in the night game in the last round. Our fitness and our legs are under us. We have to play with more intensity, and we’ve got to execute things at a higher rate of speed than we did in previous games. We have a lot of respect for them as a team and I think that’s part of what has enabled us to be successful is that every one of our players and all of us have such a high level of respect for that group, that we know we have to go out and play our best to get a result.”