The home stretch continues for Toronto FC on Wednesday evening when they welcome the Columbus Crew to BMO Field.
Riding high off back-to-back wins, the first in the semifinal of the Canadian Championship last weekend over CF Montreal and the second back in MLS play on the weekend over Atlanta United FC, and the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne, who was officially introduced on Monday, TFC are looking to carry that momentum into the rest of the home stand.
The run of five matches in a two-week span comes to an end on Saturday with the visit of Seattle Sounders FC. One more home date follows against the San Jose Earthquakes on July 9, the fixture circled for Insigne’s potential debut.
Approaching the midway point of the season, progress is being made, despite the punishing schedule.
“The group has done great,” said Bob Bradley on Tuesday. “There's been a resilience. You could see some weeks back that training started to get sharper again, that some of the ideas were taking hold, the tempo in training was faster.”
“We've seen that in games, where all of a sudden you see the ball going from one to two to three faster and with a purpose and with a way of getting forward, with guys that are looking to be on the move in the right situations. The players feel that the work is paying off,” he continued. “Everyone understands that there's still a ways to go, so we just keep going.”
With a pair of international breaks in the rear-view, the league is entering the meat of the season.
There will be a slight pause for the MLS All-Star Game on August 10 in Minnesota and another international break come September, but with 12 matches spread over the next two months, as well as the final of the 2022 Canadian Championship, scheduled for July 26 at BC Place against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, this is an important time.
“Almost halfway now. It's early in the whole process really, but you're already starting to see in the last few weeks a lot of positive signs,” said Jonathan Osorio. “So yeah, we're happy about that.”
“We’re aware that it's not been consistent throughout the year, so we have to work on being consistent, improving every game and taking our game to the next level. It's still a work in progress, but it's showing good signs, especially lately,” he added. “The team is coming together now and understanding each other and understanding Bob's idea of how we want to play.”
One of the elements that Bradley has stressed has been controlling matches, something that has been notable in the last two matches.
“There's been good stretches,” highlighted the coach. “Control is that if you can't go to a goal quickly, that you move up as a team, that your distances are right, that the decisions with the ball are good, the touches are good. And then from there you have an ability to have control when you have the ball and if you lose it, that your positions are such that you can immediately defend the ball and defend transition.”
“After we gave up the goal against Atlanta, we had an extended stretch that led to a couple of minutes where we were in their end and if we lost the ball we were able to win the ball back,” Bradley recalled. “One time they got over when Jahkeele [Marshall-Rutty] made the slide tackle on [Luis] Araújo, but there was a period in and around there where I thought it was quite good.”
Another has been cohesion, moving as a group and recognizing when to pounce and apply pressure.
Toronto forced three turnovers deep in Atlanta territory in the opening ten minutes of play on Saturday, one of which led to the opening goal from Osorio.
“We've worked hard all year to find moments to press,” began Bradley. “There's different situations. There's the situations as another team is building – are you very high, are you letting them come a little bit – but then there's moments where as a team, you can start to collectively go after the ball and have people around the ball.”
“And then there's other moments where it's more that you have the ball and you'd lose it and you can quickly go right after that,” he continued. “Some people would differentiate the two between pressing and counter pressing, that's not really a big deal, but I think that we have done a better job of reading the moments when we can do it.”
“We still have moments where we get people around the ball and the second guy or the third guy, don't read it well enough or don't react well enough. So there's a lot that still you work on every day,” Bradley added. “Little things that you hope to see improve. We did quite a good job in the first half against Atlanta of finding some moments to go together and win the ball and it paid off.”
And what was once a sore spot, has now become a strength.
TFC were fast out of the gates in the last two outings with Jayden Nelson hitting the post against Montreal inside of two minutes and Osorio’s strike coming after just eight minutes against Atlanta.
“Just being aggressive and trying to play in their end, I think we're emphasizing a little bit more,” noted Osorio. “And now that we've done it, we see how important it is and so we put more emphasis on it during games and we try to win that field advantage.”
“It helps us tremendously when we start good, it's what gets the team going and gets us playing,” he continued. “We've been talking about it really for the whole season, but finally we've gotten into a good rhythm of really starting on a front foot.”
It’s not unusual for a team to drag in such busy periods, but Toronto are only picking up steam.
“The team's getting fit, the team is getting healthy again. And so these rhythm of games are helping us,” said Osorio. “The fact that we have this stretch at this time is good for us.”
Columbus comes to town a little banged up, but in a decent run of form.
They snapped a three-game winless run in May with a 2-1 win away to Atlanta at the end of the month and have draw both games since returning from the international break: 1-1 at home against Charlotte FC and 0-0 away to Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
And that Caleb Porter’s side have done so without some key contributors – Artur and Lucas Zelarayán have missed the last two and three matches, respectively, and are listed as out and questionable for Wednesday.
Zelarayán is the club’s leading scorer with four goals (and three assists), while Derek Etienne, who has three goals and a team-leading five assists, was also absent from the lineup on Saturday.
“Columbus has had a stretch without some important players. It's a credit to Caleb and the way they play that you can still see football ideas in their team all the time,” said Bradley. “They still have ways of playing from the back, Darlington Nagbe is an important player in terms of helping them control games, they've got some dangerous attacking players. So you wait to see what the lineup will be, but you certainly still understand some of the things they're trying to do.”
The two sides have already met this season, with Columbus winning 2-1 at Lower.com Field on March 12 – second half goals from Zelarayán and Etienne overturned an early strike from Jesús Jiménez.
Columbus has won the last two meetings between the clubs, but Toronto has won the last three ‘home’ matches, the most recent of which were played in East Hartford and Orlando.
Having won the 2020 MLS Cup and the 2021 Campeones Cup, Columbus are a dangerous opponent, despite struggles in the league over the last two campaigns.
“They're still a very good team,” cautioned Osorio. “They want to play, they have similar ideas to what they've had in the past, but trying to change some things as well. It's a team that wants to be in possession. They have very strong midfield players.”
“They've struggled a little bit with the injury to Zelarayán, of course you're going to struggle there, that's a big piece to miss, but we know that they're fighting,” he added. “We're kind of close in the table to each other, so this is a big game for both teams.”