It’s been an eventful fortnight for Toronto FC.
A coaching change, a trio of matches, players returning from international duty, a handful of transactions. Things happen quickly in professional sports.
Terry Dunfield stepped into the manager’s role and had to navigate three games in quick succession. With, finally, a week between matches the side took a moment to pause and regroup.
“We were cognizant this week of burnout, of our families,” said Dunfield on Thursday. “Taking a breath was going to be important – my son and I went to the splash pad yesterday, which was really cool on our day off – but this week has been nice.”
“We just followed our process of reviewing St. Louis, our metrics showed that we were really close and there's some areas we can improve on. Tuesday we worked on our ID. It was cool to see TFC II win in penalties [on Wednesday], that gives the club a little bit of a lift, and then today there was a little bit of team building ahead of training and we got into what was coming our way from Chicago,” he outlined. “We had a really good training session today, have some fun tomorrow, and we're excited for the weekend. We know we’re close, but we also know it's a process.”
As the Concacaf Gold Cup winds down – the Final pits Mexico and Panama against each other on Sunday – TFC welcomed back Jonathan Osorio and Sean Johnson from international duty. Both are available for selection this weekend.
They returned to a world different to the one they left.
“The team is moving forward now,” said Osorio. “We're trying to create an environment where guys are coming in and working hard and doing everything that we can to turn this around.”
“I'm happy to be back,” he added. “Everybody knows how much I care about this club.”
He was welcomed back by a former teammate turned manager.
“I'm excited for him,” said Osorio of working with Dunfield. “I played with him my first year at the club. He's a great guy and he brings a lot of energy which I feel the group needs.”
“In a year where things don't really go your way it could weigh on you and this new energy that he's instilled into the team, we need [it],” he continued. “This is my first training session with the full group with him and the energy was good, the commitment and the focus was good. So I'm excited to go into this game and do everything I can to help the team.”
Saturday away to the Chicago Fire will be the fourth match under Dunfield. Toronto were very close to a result in two of the previous outings – losing 1-0 to Real Salt Lake and St. Louis CITY SC – a bounce here, a block there, converting this chance, snuffing that one out.
After Chicago Toronto has a week-and-a-half to prepare for their Leagues Cup debut. They travel to face NYCFC in their first group stage match on July 26 and then welcome Mexican side Atlas FC to BMO Field on July 30.
“We're putting everything into Chicago,” stressed Dunfield. “We're really proud of our work. We've been close. I hope the fans can feel it. We can feel it in the room that we're close and there has been growth, but we do need to kick that door down, win a game, and hopefully have a nice little hot streak.”
This week also saw TFC dip into the transfer market with a pair of intraleague moves: defensive midfielder Franco Ibarra joins on loan from Atlanta United, while a trade with the New England Revolution saw Mark-Anthony Kaye depart with Latif Blessing on his way to Toronto.
Blessing will not be available on Saturday, but Ibarra is.
“I'm ready if the coach needs me,” said the 22-year-old Argentine through a translator. “Physically, I feel very good. I trained a little bit yesterday and I trained again today, so whenever he needs me I’ll be ready to go.”
Toronto also had a special guest at the BMO Training Ground on Thursday: Toronto Argonauts legend and General Manager Mike ‘Pinball’ Clemons.
“You can have the best strategy and tactics in the world, but that's underpinned by team spirit and togetherness and fighting for the guy beside you,” said Dunfield. “We had Pinball Clemons come in, three-time Grey Cup Champion, and speak to the group. He shared that he believed in the team. It was powerful.”
“I don't think coming together as a team happens by just going bowling or out for dinner,” he continued. “It has to be purposeful.”
“And Pinball has done it all. One of his superpowers, other than being an amazing person, is bringing the group together. We spoke about resilience,” Dunfield outlined. “Lorenzo [Insigne] said, ‘It's time for action now.’”
“It's easy to say it; what does action look like?” he added of the evolving conversation. “We got into that a little bit, and our brotherhood and really meaning and living ‘All for One.’”
The end result was a ball signed by every player, embodying their belief that with 11 games left and the playoffs 10 points away the team could pull off this task. It will travel with them for every one of those 11 remaining matches.
Don’t say it’s impossible.
“I've been in this league long enough, I've seen late runs happen in this league going into the playoffs,” said Osorio. “The last 10 games, the form which a team can get in those last 10 games, is really important.”
“It's a little bit of a gap right now, but it's doable,” he continued. “That's the hope; the confidence in each other and the group that if we keep together and we keep strong we can turn this around. But it starts this Saturday and we take it one game at a time.”
Toronto and Chicago have already met once this season, a scoreless draw at BMO Field on May 31.
Back then it was Chicago who had recently made a coaching change, with Frank Klopas stepping in on an interim basis for Ezra Hendrickson.
Under Klopas the Fire have inched themselves up the table, currently in possession of that final spot in the Eastern Conference.
They come into Saturday’s match in good form, having won their last two matches, both at home, and four of their last five. A 3-0 midweek win over visiting CF Montreal will have them in good spirits as well.
“They start both halves really quickly, which can catch you off-guard,” cautioned Dunfield. “Those first five minutes are frantic, we'll have to manage that, but within that there's opportunity.”
“When the game settles, they sit in a compact-ish 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 midblock and it'll be on us to go to work on that,” he continued. “And then with the ball they look for [Xherdan] Shaqiri. He's in form, he's enjoying his football a little bit more now. We'll give him the respect he deserves. They're in a good little run right now.”
Kei Kamara leads the side with five goals on the season, while Brian Gutiérrez’s seven assists top Shaqiri’s four.
“Some things will be similar for sure, some things they've kept the same,” said Osorio. “But it will be a different game.”