Toronto FC ended the regular-season on a winning note Sunday, missing out on a first-round playoff bye but not short on confidence as it prepares to face the Philadelphia Union in a midweek MLS knockout game.
Led by Sebastian Giovinco's goal and assist, Toronto defeated the lowly Chicago Fire 3-2 to up its single-season franchise record to 53 points.
Toronto, which started the day in third place, had needed to beat Chicago and have New York City FC tie or lose to Columbus to vault past NYCFC into second in the Eastern Conference and get the first-round bye.
NYCFC did not co-operate, scoring three late goals to win 4-1. So instead of having a week to prepare for the Eastern Conference semifinal, Toronto (14-9-11) will now host Philadelphia (11-14-9) on Wednesday.
While Toronto has only lost twice in its last 15 games (8-2-5), it forced the drive for a playoff bye to the final day by squandering points at home. Sunday victory was Toronto's first win at BMO Field since Aug. 6, ending an 0-2-3 run at home. It also snapped a five-game winless streak (0-1-4) dating back to a victory over the Fire in Chicago on Sept. 10.
Given Toronto missed out on second place by one point, those dropped points cost the club dearly in its quest for the bye.
"It definitely was ours," Giovinco, speaking through an interpreter, said of the bye. "We showed that we could have had it this season. But it's useless to think of what could have been. It's better just to think of what is."
Toronto captain Michael Bradley was also not thinking of what might have been. Instead he chose to see Philadelphia as the first playoff obstacle to be removed.
"It's a huge game, there's no two ways about it," he said. "You play all year to get to this point. We're excited to begin.
"If this part scares you, then you're in the wrong business."
Wednesday's game will be the first-ever home playoff contest for Toronto, which lost its post-season debut last year when it was beaten 3-0 in Montreal in the first round.
Bradley, who has talked in the past of the kind of character the club needs to succeed, likes what he sees when he looks around the Toronto locker-room this season.
"I think there isn't going to be a team in this league that is going to be excited about playing us in the next six weeks," he said. "If we can understand what's gotten us to this point, concentrate on every little detail, make sure that when the lights come on that every guy is ready to spill their guts onto the field. If we're able to make the important plays at both ends of the field, then I think I like our chances."
Toronto won 3-1 on Aug. 20 in Philadelphia and tied the Union 1-1 on Sept. 24 in BMO Field. Should Toronto get past Philadelphia, the road to the Eastern Conference title will likely lead through New York with the Red Bulls and NYCFC finishing first and second.
"We have a good feel for them," Bradley said of the Union. "We know what they're all about."
D.C. United hosts Montreal in the other Eastern Conference knockout game.
Should Toronto beat Philadelphia, it will open the Eastern semifinal at home Sunday and play the return leg away on Nov. 6. Had it secured the bye, it would have opened on the road and played the second leg at home.
"We'll play whoever we have to play whenever we have to play and we'll make sure that we're ready," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
He noted Portland also finished third in its conference last season and went on to win the MLS Cup.