Burden of the Shield: Expectations are high for Toronto FC, perhaps the heaviest favorite in MLS history

Every year, a team carries into the playoffs a huge burden known as the Supporters’ Shield.

As many teams have discovered, the Shield proves to be an insurmountable obstacle rather than a stepping stone to the podium on which gathers the MLS Cup winner. In the past decade, only Columbus (2008) and the L.A. Galaxy (2011) have ascended to both summits.

Since the Galaxy’s dual triumph, no Shield winner has reached the MLS Cup final, let alone won it. Pile on the expectations of setting a league record for points in a regular season and Toronto FC -- which lost last year’s final at home to Seattle -- is perhaps the heaviest favorite in league history heading into the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday against the New York Red Bulls.

The Red Bulls know all about the SS Curse, which in 2013 and 2015 felled them in the conference semifinals and finals, respectively. This year, they ride into the conference semis on the wave of a 4-0 pummeling of Chicago in the Knockout Round and all the expectations crammed into the other team’s locker room.

TFC has won two of the last five meetings, including a 4-2 victory at BMO Field just four weeks ago. In that game, Red Bull Daniel Royer scored a goal and assisted on the other. Against Chicago in midweek he scored again to up his take for 2017 (including playoffs) to 13 goals and three assists.

The Red Bulls pressed the Fire from the first kick and effectively sealed the outcome with goals by Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in the first 11 minutes. The TFC defense is much harder to breach, but the Red Bulls can force turnovers against anybody, and with that attacking trio running at the TFC back line – which normally is a line of three – they have the firepower to build up an advantage for the second leg at BMO next week.

TFC posted the league’s best road record (7-4-6) and outscored opponents, 29-22. It amassed 19 more points (69 to 50) in the regular season. It is only the second team in league history to score twice as many goals (74) as it conceded (37).

It beat the Red Bulls last month with an amazing hat trick by wingback Justin Morrow and a vital third goal by Victor Vazquez, the winter signing whose consistent production (eight goals, 16 assists) has been the perfect antidote for the teams’ over-reliance on Sebastian Giovinco, whose 16 goals this season was the fewest of his MLS career, and Jozy Altidore (15 goals).

This is certainly a matchup of the big markets and big names. But it could be a Morrow or a Royer or any one of a dozen other players coming up big at a crucial moment to decide this series one way or the other. Both lineups are loaded with players who have delivered at key moments this season, and as an underdog -- so often a failure as the favorite -- the sixth seed is perfectly cast.

“It will be a massive challenge,” said Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. “We know that, but we are excited.”

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