When David Villa left New York City FC following the 2018 season, the club lost its most accomplished player and the biggest star in its short history.

Villa, a World Cup winner with Spain, scored 80 goals in four seasons for NYCFC and his departure for Vissel Kobe in Japan seemingly left a gaping hole in the team’s attack.

“At first it forces everyone to step up a little bit,” team captain Alex Ring said of the team’s transition to life after Villa. “He was our talisman, everything focused around him, rightfully so, just because of his merits and the way that he performed here in MLS.”

But Villa’s departure has not crippled NYCFC. In some ways, it even has kicked the team into overdrive.

In the first season without Villa, NYCFC finished with club-record totals in goals scored (63) and points (64), and earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the MLS playoffs.

“I think that some teams also knew that [Villa was the team’s talisman] and played accordingly against us,” Ring said ahead of the conference semifinal clash with Toronto FC on Wednesday. “This year it’s a bit harder to man-mark one, two, three, four players up-front — you can’t play like that. I think it’s helped us a little bit but you shouldn’t forget what he’s done for the club.”

Without Villa, NYCFC have found success with a balanced, unpredictable attack that saw eight different players score multiple goals this season.

NYCFC coach Domenec Torrent
NYCFC coach Domenec TorrentAnthony J. Causi

Toronto, which is riding an 11-game unbeaten streak that dates to Aug. 3, will provide a stern test. Toronto also showed it can score in bunches with its extra-time performance versus DC United on Saturday — tallying four goals in 13 minutes during the first half of the overtime.

“I don’t think it’s fair to write Toronto off,” NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. “They obviously have a lot of experience, they have players who have been there and hoisted the cup.”

That experience, coupled with MLS’ new single-elimination format for the playoffs, presents a potential trap game for NYCFC, who will be playing their first competitive match in 18 days.

Toronto may not have its full contingent of players. Forward Jozy Altidore, who missed Saturday’s win over DC United with a quadriceps injury, is still day-to-day. Defender Omar Gonzalez (hamstring) likely will be a game-time decision.

While NYCFC do have the comfort of a “home” game at Citi Field (selected as the site because Yankee Stadium was not going to be available, though it would be for the conference final on Oct. 30), the change in the playoff format has made this postseason decidedly more intense.

On Saturday, the Seattle Sounders fought their way to a thrilling 4-3 victory over FC Dallas, while on Sunday the Red Bulls lost by the same score after leading Philadelphia Union 3-1 in the second half.

For NYCFC, the amplified importance of Wednesday’s game is clear.

“If you make just one mistake,” head coach Domenec Torrent said, “you’re out.”

Standing along the third-base line of Citi Field, Ring took stock of the high intensity he witnessed during last weekend’s chaotic slate of games.

“You can see that there’s a lot at stake,” he said. “That’s how a playoff game should be.”