As April nears its end, the MLS regular season begins to shift.
Through the first twelve weeks of the season Toronto FC has one league match scheduled. Like clockwork through these first eight weeks Bob Bradley’s men have suited up for action each weekend. That begins to expand come May with midweek games weaving in and TFC’s participation in the Canadian Championship getting underway.
Six league matches are set for next month, as are the quarterfinal and semifinal stages of the Voyageurs Cup. June and July see only four MLS matches apiece, but factor in a potential Canadian Championship final, the Concacaf Nations League Finals and the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup and there are a lot of moving pieces.
“The season starts, typically you play once a week, but then at a certain point there are midweek games and so your ability to deal with all that is challenging,” said Bob Bradley on Thursday. “It usually comes down to the depth and your roster.”
Toronto has had an eye on that with how they have handled the squad: making sure different guys get minutes, holding players back – Adama Diomande, Victor Vázquez, Michael Bradley of late – so that little things do not develop into bigger things, making sure young guys see action with TFC II.
“It provides opportunities,” Bradley underlined. “When I speak about guys like Dio and Victor, part of how we manage them now is knowing that we'll get into that stretch and they're going to be called on. When the games don't come as fast and they've got little things, you think let's be smart about how we build them up, so that when we get to this period of time, they're ready.”
TRAINING SOUND | BOB BRADLEY - APRIL 20, 2023
From the outside it is easy to look at this opening portion of the schedule as a ramp up into the full swing of action. Enticing though that may seem, such narratives are an external luxury.
“I don’t think you can look at a schedule and say this is how this part is going to be, the next part is going to be busy, and then there'll be an easy run of games,” countered Lukas MacNaughton. “When the games come, I don't think it's ever like that.”
“You just go out every day, every week, to prepare and try and perform the best you can,” he continued. “With the roster you have available, with how the other team is performing, all these things come and go, it's always a roller coaster of a season. You want to plan ahead, but when you're in the season, you can't really look at it that way. You’ve just got to put your head down and grind and stay focused on the task at hand.”
Through eight matches progress from last season is clear.
The defence has been relatively sound: three clean-sheets already surpasses the mark from 2022, while the goals-against average has shrunk from nearly two per game (1.941) to just above one (1.125).
“Consistency is probably the biggest thing: having guys playing regular minutes and being in a position where it's not rotating,” said MacNaughton. “That plays a big part in knowing how the team is organized.”
“Some guys have been here for a longer time now, we're not having guys coming in halfway through the season. Not many injuries and then being very proactive in wanting to improve and wanting to help each other,” he added. “That's a big part of it.”
Now the work is on the final actions.
“You can break them down in different ways, create some special training to work on the timing of different moves and everything else, but the most important thing is that you create game actions in your regular training. That you create the kind of movements and the kind of actions that you think as a team are important,” outlined Bradley of how the team is honing those moments. “We work through that every day.”
“Being able to do it when it happens, to recognize the moment, to get the timing, yeah, that's the challenge. That's what differentiates the best players and the best teams,” he continued. “We do a lot of things in training that involve actions that get us coming from outside-inside and the ability for guys to time runs and balls to get played through windows so that guys are on the run getting into the box.”
“Almost all parts of our training address how the best teams do that well,” Bradley added. “The fact that we get in those situations is a plus, the part of being able to execute better... it's the work.”
That will turn draws into wins. The mentality is there.
In only two matches this season has TFC trailed: twice on opening day against D.C. United and twice last weekend against Atlanta United. In three of those four situations they have found a way back; in the other, D.C.’s last-gasp winner, there simply wasn’t time.
Unbeaten in seven, six of them draws, one win in eight; however one frames it, the mentality is there. It was evident in the second half response on opening day and again when trailing last weekend.
“Definitely full,” replied MacNaughton, asked if the string of results was glass half-empty or half-full. “From a mentality perspective the club is in a great position.”
“Last game we're down [and we fought back], if you want to be a team that wins things and have a good season, you have to have that mentality,” he continued. “That isn't something that will come overnight, that's something that needs to be created, needs to be built between the players, and we have that.”
TRAINING SOUND | LUKAS MACNAUGHTON - APRIL 20, 2023
“When we're down, when we're up, everybody wants to win and everybody wants to help each other out,” MacNaughton underlined. “We're in it together, so when times are tough, we will get results. And then there will be better times too.”
With the first round of the Canadian Championship in the books, TFC learned who they will be facing in the quarterfinals: CF Montreal, who dispatched Vaughan SC of League1 Ontario 2-0 on Tuesday at Stade Saputo.
“It's good. It would be fun to play against Vaughan, a local team, that would be fun for sure, but playing against Montreal is a big rivalry,” said MacNaughton. “I've watched enough of those, played in a few now. It's exciting. Those are big games, the types of games that you want to have pretty much all the time.”
That clash is set to be scheduled between May 7 and May 9.
Until then, Toronto has a trio of big MLS matches to look forward to. This weekend away to the defending Eastern Conference Champions the Philadelphia Union, the following Saturday back home against the always troublesome NYCFC, and then on May 6 at BMO Field against the New England Revolution, who currently sit atop of the East, tied on points with FC Cincinnati.
The games only get bigger from here.
Jim Curtin’s side, with a record of two wins, four losses, and two draws, has not shown their typical form in league play yet this season. They enter Saturday’s match winless in five, including a defeat (against Orlando City SC) and a draw (against Sporting KC) at home.
But do not be mistaken: they are still a top team in the East.
“They're a good team,” levelled Bradley. “They're trying to balance the [Concacaf] Champions League run with the league and that's not easy.”
The Union dispatched Alianza of El Salvador (4-0) in the Round of 16 and Mexican side Atlas FC (3-2) in the quarterfinals to set up a tasty all-MLS semifinal clash with LAFC.
“They're a team that has had consistency: players that have been there, that know each other. They have a way of playing. They're dangerous in the way they attack,” reminded Bradley. “They’re a good team.”
Midfield playmaker Daniel Gazdag is a key man once more with three goals and five assists, while forwards Julián Carranza and Mikael Uhre have three and two goals, respectively.
“They're a team that's very aggressive, very high energy, they like to run him behind,” said MacNaughton. “You know you're going to play 90 minutes with them, if you're up or down, they're going to put pressure on the whole game.”