Toronto FC got some tough news earlier this week.
On Thursday the club announced that Jozy Altidore underwent foot surgery that will see him sidelined for as many as six weeks and that Ralph Priso would miss the rest of the season as his ankle injury will require an operation.
“It’s a big loss for us,” said Javier Perez of the two injuries during Friday’s Zoom conference call. “[With Priso] it’s very disappointing because we finally had a player that was having an impact – arguably the best player on the field in the game he was injured. Our thoughts are with him.”
“We know that he’s a courageous young man and we are going to be behind him, supporting him, looking forward to having him back with the team,” he continued. “Unfortunately, it won't be this season, but he’s going to make his mark again.”
“In the case of Jozy everything has been very quick,” outlined the coach. “It wasn’t clear what was the extent of the injury, the extent of the time that he would be off the field.”
“Different professionals have been evaluating his situation and the decision came pretty fast. Jozy wanted to get surgery as soon as possible, get it out of the way, and now the recovery process starts,” Perez added. “We are looking forward to having him back with us as soon as possible.”
While the loss of two key pieces was a blow, Priso has provided a model for the other younger players to follow, a reminder that when an opportunity comes it must be seized.
Jacob Shaffelburg and Noble Okello did just that midweek with starts in Atlanta, earning praise from their coach and teammates post-match.
“It's a positive for all the young players to see that it's possible to break through the team and play some meaningful games and meaningful minutes,” said Okello. “It makes everybody else – me, Jayden [Nelson], Jahkeele [Marshall-Rutty], Jacob, Julian Dunn even – continue to get better and maybe that could be us on a consistent basis if we work hard.”
In a turbulent season, young players can fall through the cracks when it comes to first team minutes.
Okello excelled early in the campaign, starting the first two matches and featuring prominently in the Concacaf Champions League, but as time wore on he found himself on the fringes of the XI, making three appearances off the bench before the start on Wednesday.
Playing a little higher up the pitch, he is using each and every opportunity to earn his chance.
“I take every training and every game as the last and I try to improve on whatever the coach is asking me to do,” Okello explained. “This year I find myself higher up the field, but at the same time it doesn't mean that I can't work on things defensively.”
“It was a good start and I've been trying to find my way through the middle of the season, trying to get back into the team,” he assessed the year. “But I just need to keep working hard and keep focusing to fully break through one day.”
The confidence boost from a successful outing will be useful going forward.
“It definitely helps when you have teammates around you that believe in you,” said Okello. “Going into the games coming up I just have to use that confidence that my team has given me and keep working.”
In many ways, that concept parallels with the team itself, looking to build from a series of strong performances against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference as they eye the rest of the schedule.
“The last few games we've been playing some attractive and good football. We just need to keep looking towards the next game and take each one game at a time,” added Okello. “The mood is good right now.”
Toronto will play the second match of a three-game road swing on Saturday evening when they visit DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to face Inter Miami CF.
In his first season with the club, just their second in existence, Phil Neville seems to have found a formula that works in recent weeks.
Miami enter the match with just one loss in their last six outings and riding a three-game home winning streak with victories over CF Montreal, Nashville SC, and, most recently, the Chicago Fire by a 3-2 scoreline on Wednesday.
The last two in particular have been dramatic: Miami needed a 95th-minute winner from Indiana Vassilev against Nashville and a 93rd-minute strike from Rodolfo Pizarro against Chicago to secure the six points.
Evidence that this is an opponent that fights to the end.
“It’s a team in good form – they’ve won three of their last five games,” began Perez. “They struggled a little bit before, but now they have found their shape. They play in a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3, all three DPs – [Gonzalo Higuain, Pizarro, and Blaise Matuidi] – are eligible to play, they are in a good form, so it’s going to be a tough game.”
“They occupy the spaces very well – it’s going to be similar to the game we played in Atlanta in a way, but they like to play a little bit more in between lines,” he compared. “And they close down spaces defensively, a bit more than Atlanta.”
Added Okello: “It'll be a game that’s fast – they’re playing at home in front of their fans, It'll be a game that we have to take to them early on and really impose ourselves in the game.”
Toronto won the only previous meeting between the clubs – a 2-1 result last November in Connecticut that saw Ayo Akinola and Alejandro Pozuelo score for TFC in the second half with Matuidi opening the scoring before half-time.
They will meet twice more later this year: on September 14 at BMO Field and October 20 in Florida.
Gonzalo Higuain, playing with his brother and Columbus Crew legend Federico, leads the team with eight goals and four assists, but he is far from their only threat.
2020 MLS SuperDraft first-overall pick Robbie Robertson has three goals this season and recent introduction Vassilev has added another element to the team. And the importance and threat of both Pizarro and Lewis Morgan is not done justice by the raw numbers – one goal and two assists, one goals and three assists, respectively.
“Pizarro is getting in a very good form. He likes to start on the left, but likes to come underneath, almost like a 10. Robinson runs in behind, scored two goals [in recent weeks] and then we can’t forget about Morgan – a good player that can use left foot, right foot, he’s feisty, he can run in behind, likes playing between lines,” listed Perez. “They have a lot of tools out front. We are going to have to be very sharp.”
And the former River Plate/Real Madrid/Napoli/Juventus man, Gonzalo?
“It’s his history, right?” levelled Perez. “He's a player that can do so many things and he does it right. He reads very well the game. He can come underneath to link up, connect with the midfield players when things are not clicking in the team. And then when things are clicking he finds his position inside the box. He can even run in behind. A very dangerous player.”