Toronto FC

Reds gear up for NYCFC clash: "Just keep coming back to the process"

Three games into the season it would be easy to let results go to one’s head. 

Toronto FC have started the 2024 MLS campaign well. Two results from the away games to start the year were followed up by last weekend’s 1-0 win at BMO Field over Charlotte FC. 

The side is unbeaten, yet to concede a goal, and on a two-game winning streak, nevermind that Lorenzo Insigne keeps pulling rabbits out of hats.

John Herdman is not letting that bright start alter their approach.

“What we've said right from the start is just one step, one game, one process,” he said on Thursday after training. “As long as we stay in the process, we know what our targets are, we know when we go to away games, what that means, what that's about, our style of play, and what it means to get a result on the road.”

“For us it's just keep coming back to the process,” Herdman stressed. “The noise outside of the team – I mean, some people are looking for the wheels to fall off, hoping that that happens, and others are just super excited that were showing some signs of life – but internally, we're just back to process.”

“Monday morning we're reviewing the game. Tuesday went on to the scouting of New York and focusing on the targets for that game. Wednesday we’re into team selection. Thursday we’re rehearsing the tactical blueprint. Friday will be set-pieces,” he detailed. “And game on. The processes are here, they're working, let’s stick to them.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

Injuries have seen some key pieces out of action. Richie Laryea has been sidelined since the season opener. Sean Johnson missed last weekend and Kevin Long was forced off at half-time against Charlotte. 

That will happen over the course of a long MLS season. It becomes about how the rest of the side adapts to those absences and through these early days an attitude of ‘Next man up,’ whether it’s Luka Gavran in goal, Kobe Franklin patrolling the right-flank, or Sigurd Rosted locking down the middle of defense, has already begun to take seed.

“It's the repetitions that we're giving in training, the trust that we put into the group through the preseason as well,” noted Herdman of that resilience coming through. “There were a lot of players that played a lot of minutes in preseason because we never brought new faces in at the beginning. A lot of lads got reps and I'm pleased that those lads got those reps because they're stepping in.”

“You think of Sigurd playing big minutes against LAFC,” he continued. “That was a big moment for him because he showed his competence, that we all can trust him to come in and do a job. ‘Next man up.’ There's a good feeling in the group, there's a trust there, and when there’s a trust you’re not second guessing whether a guy is going to come in and put max effort in. That's one thing everyone can expect.”

“And when you get trust other things start to follow like confidence,” Herdman added. “People come in more confident and not fearful of losing their shirt. They feel like they're just going to do a job for the team.”

TFC are enjoying their football.

“We see, everyone sees,” agreed Raoul Petretta. “We were training well, we were good, organized, there are some good ideas to play football.”

“We're enjoying this moment,” he added. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Petretta, whether at full-back or as the left-sided centre-back in the three, has found new life in 2024.

“He's a class act,” said Herdman. “Last season, I could sense he was playing with low confidence. We've given him some license and clarity and he’s enjoyed that wide centre-back role. He knows he's the hybrid full-back, he's got that license to join on the outside, join on the inside.”

“And he's got a great relationship with Lorenzo. Those two are friends off the field, they spend a lot of time together, and you can see that he's willing to do that work that you have to do when you play around a player like him,” he continued. “To create space, to move players, to block players.”

“He's been an absolute breath of fresh air. He's been one of my favourite players in this preseason. He's grown strength to strength,” Herdman credited. “He's an intelligent footballer and when we asked him to go into wing-back, he puts the big shift in. He’s still growing. He’s got a wand of a left foot, we'd like to see him crossing more and getting into that part of the field. Hopefully we see a bit more of that from Raoul.”

There is a familiarity in what Petretta has been asked, but also a certain simplicity, a clarity.

“I played in Europe, more or less, the same position, a wing-back who's joining in the box, but also at the same time has to defend,” he said. “I'm really enjoying this position, this role.”

“We have to do our jobs,” Petretta underlined. “First of all, this is the most important thing: to do our job, to play with our principals.”

“We're [well] prepared for the games,” he added. “You see this during the game, everyone knows where to press and when to press. We will be prepared for the New York game.”

Toronto are back on the road this weekend as they travel to New York City to face NYCFC at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. 

Nick Cushing’s side has struggled out of the gates, losing all three of their matches this season. Shutout away to Charlotte and St. Louis CITY SC in the first two, back home last weekend New York took the lead in the 10th minute through Santiago Rodríguez, only to allow two goals between the 85th and 97th minutes against the Portland Timbers.

Herdman knows they will be hungry for a result on Saturday, whatever they have to do to get it.

“They’re a surgeon's knife team, very intricate with their style, their play, but they came away from it first half last week, they were very direct,” he noted. “I was really surprised how quickly they went front to back. They were very much like Charlotte – looked to play in the channels and then pick up the second phase.

"and were prepared to win ugly.”

“[Cushing] is willing to come away from his identity to get the outcome he needs and they played well the first 45 minutes,” Herdman continued. “The number nine [Mounsef Bakrar] got in behind quite a lot and they were able to get the little number 10 [Rodríguez] off the front on the second. We've got to be ready for that. We've got to be ready for them not being New York given they just need to win.”

The narrow Cracker Jack box of a pitch at Yankee Stadium is always an element to be reckoned with at NYCFC.

Herdman is “excited” for his first trip to The Bronx.

“It’s bringing us back to the narrow fields of Hamilton or Edmonton,” he recalled, referencing Canada’s Concacaf World Cup Qualification adventure. “We purposefully narrow fields for certain matches, so I've had some experience on how to get the best out of your team in 64 metres.”

“Apparently it's even smaller than it's quoted as,” Herdman continued. “I had a good chat with [Timbers coach] Phil Neville after the weekend game and he said the pitch is beautiful, it'll play well, but you’ve got to be ready: one pass it seems to be in your box. We narrowed all the fields in this week and have been training with that philosophy.”

As TFC prepared for this weekend’s action, another branch of the season became a little more clear. 

Previously drawn into Group East 6 alongside CF Pachuca and the New York Red Bulls, the 2024 Leagues Cup schedule was announced on Thursday. 

Toronto will face the Red Bulls in New Jersey on July 27 and then host Pachuca on August 4 at BMO Field. Red Bulls and Pachuca meet for the other group match in between, at Red Bull Arena on July 30.

Herdman is looking forward to that change of pace when it rolls around, but for now, it’s all about that one step, one game process. 

“It gives you a break from the day to day MLS grind,” he anticipated. “When you bring a tournament in, with a trophy, it gives a different focus and zest, particularly to players that you might use in that tournament that may not be used as frequently in the league.”

“These are decisions we’ll evaluate,” Herdman continued. “Our priority is the league. We've made that clear. We'll look at where we're at in the league and how that's progressing to then evaluate whether the cups are something that we really get after with our starting XI or we give opportunity for our sub-core to really maximize their minutes and compete.”