The returns of Prince Owusu and Cassius Mailula to fitness have come at a good time.
Both players saw action off the bench in Toronto FC’s midweek defeat away to Charlotte FC and could be in contention to start on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.
“Really good,” said Owusu on Friday afternoon, asked how he was feeling. “I’ve had some time, from game to game I feel stronger, and the last couple days I felt like I was getting my power back. I’m in a good way.”
Each made their debut in August, showed glimpses of their capabilities, but both picked up a little knocks that kept them out of the lineup.
“They're back to where they were when they first joined the club,” outlined Terry Dunfield. “They've gotten over their injuries, they've got some minutes under their belts, and they're excited for what's next: to start games, be more impactful, and really help the organization climb back up the mountain.”
Mailula saw just 16 minutes midweek, Prince, however, came on in the 61st minute – his third-straight appearance off the bench – and looked sharp, constantly prodding the back-line making himself available and finding lanes to run. The connection didn’t come, but it will.
“Yeah, it's normal,” he explained. “I had an injury and only so much training with the guys.”
“The last couple of training sessions, we connected better. We spoke about the deep running, in which situation, in which time I want the ball,” Owusu continued. “We’ve had a couple of chats and it's getting better and better every day. It’s a process. We have to keep working on it and we will do it.”
Toronto’s injury report grew this week, including the news that Brandon Servania suffered an ACL injury and will be out for the remainder of the 2023 season.
“It's really sad,” said Dunfield. “He's handled the news like a champ, he's still smiling around the training ground.”
“It was a shock for everyone. I shared with him that I've been through some tough injuries and the resilience you build and perspective will be helpful in your journey,” he added. “I've got no doubt he'll get past it and come back stronger.”
As for Servania, so too for TFC.
The club is hoping the frustrations and disappointment of 2023 pave the way for brighter times ahead.
Owusu has seen it play out that way.
“I’ve had this experience before, I know how to deal with this,” he explained. “The key is to get the team closer to each other, don’t let the external pressures go into the team. It's also very important to speak, to figure out how we can get out of this situation. That’s what we’re doing at the moment.”
“Football is easy to play when everything is going well, but successful people go through tough times and when they come out then you see the results of the sacrifice,” the German forward laid out. “We have good players. We have a good staff. We are playing in a big team, a big club, and when we come out of this situation, we, the fans, the club, will have a lot of fun on the pitch and off the pitch.”
John Herdman continues his background observations, but has not been silent.
“He's already in contact with us, speaking a lot with the players, about that background of the players,” relayed Owusu. “He wants to know about the whole person, not just the player. It's important to know about the people who you will be working with in the future.”
A somewhat familiar opponent sits before TFC this week.
Toronto and Red Bull played out a scoreless draw on May 17 at BMO Field, but these two have battled many times over the years.
And that the Red Bull way has perhaps its highest expression in Germany with RB Leipzig means even the newest members of the squad know what to expect.
“The Red Bull philosophy is easy to say,” detailed Owusu. “They want to get the ball as soon as possible, so they will press us really high. And when they get the ball, they want to finish the attack really quickly, so they don't need many passes. They’re always looking forward to get the ball to the next player in front.”
“We have to crush their plans,” he continued. “We have some plans. And also it's risky play what they do, especially in the defense. We expect the back-line to be really high.”
While not wholly unique in MLS these days, New York are still a tricky opponent.
“There's a couple of ways you can manage it,” outlined Dunfield. “Taking the press on, exploiting some of the vertical gaps, going a little bit direct, and just taking some of the teeth out of their game model and looking to play overtop of it.”
Troy Lesesne’s side head into Saturday in good form, having won two of their last three matches: away to D.C. United and at FC Cincinnati on Wednesday.
Omir Fernandez leads the side with six goals on the season; John Tolkin’s six assists have him as the top assist man.
“It's a young team that's direct, that’s very much on the front foot, that's highly motivated to continue pushing for a playoff spot. I expect a game full of energy,” anticipated Dunfield. “But having said that, I'm hopeful our guys will come out and play a little bit angry and take some of our frustrations of a tough season out in New York.”
“Each player's personality is a little bit different and what that ‘angry’ can look like, but the common theme that binds us together here is it's been a tough season,” closed the interim coach. “Coming through the end of this we will be stronger and more resilient, but we could use some of those frustrations as fuel tomorrow.”