After spending the majority of last week on the road, split between Miami and New York City, Toronto FC were glad to be back home this week.
TFC will have one more home match at the end of October – against Orlando City SC on October 21, the final day of the 2023 MLS regular season – but Saturday’s match against FC Cincinnati comes with some added motivation.
“It’s been nice to come back to the training ground after being away for five or six days,” said Terry Dunfield on Friday. “We said at the start of the week that the objective is to not allow Cincinnati to celebrate on our pitch, in our house. We don't want that.”
“We don't want that to happen in front of our families and in front of our fans, so there's real motivation there,” he continued. “And we spoke about just being eight out of 10s. We don't have to be perfect, but just be an eight out of 10, on and off the field. If we are, with the talent we have downstairs, then we’ll be good and maybe there's a performance like we had against Philadelphia for our home fans.”
Toronto handed the Philadelphia Union, then second in the East, a 3-1 defeat at BMO Field at the end of August. And though TFC were mathematically eliminated from post-season contention with the defeat at NYCFC, they will be aiming for a similar performance on Saturday.
Still, that news always hits hard. Following the road trip Dunfield wanted his players to process that fact.
“Take two days guys. Feel as sorry as you want for yourself for 48 hours,” he recounted of his parting message. “But when you come back into the training ground on Wednesday, we'll review New York, go through our processes, and then on Thursday we start to prepare for Cincinnati.”
“Obviously that's disappointing, but they are still league games, we’re still playing in front of our fans,” pointed out Deandre Kerr. “We owe it to them to go on and try to win out the remaining games.”
Cincinnati find themselves at the other end of the Eastern Conference table with a chance to claim the 2023 Supporters’ Shield on Saturday. A win, a draw with some other results going their way, and potentially even a defeat, though that requires some extensive gymnastics, would see them lift that trophy as the top side in MLS over the regular season.
“It’s simply an added piece of motivation to the motivation we already have: it’s the first place team and we're at home – that's motivation in its own right,” reminded Kerr. “But to know that they have the chance to lift that trophy at our place. We don’t want that to happen.”
With John Herdman set to step into his role on October 1, Saturday will be Dunfield’s final match as interim coach. He will continue on as part of the coaching staff.
“It's been a pretty incredible ride these last 14 weeks and I'm really excited to work with John. I know he'll help continue to turn this around,” said Dunfield. “We’re too big to be in this position. As hard as it is right now, I'm excited to play a small role in helping the club get back to the top of the mountain.”
Dunfield reflected on his tenure.
“Really proud of the work that has gone on behind the scenes, the work of my staff,” he highlighted. “My role was to come in and hold the fort. It was supposed to be four games; it turned into half a season. I feel really privileged.”
“It's been tough. There’s been highs, there's been lows. We've started to think to the future, which is important,” Dunfield continued. “There have been some nice performances in there. We've been close most weeks and I've learned that in this league the margins are just so fine. Unfortunately, result wise, we've been on the wrong side of that, but we've continued to persevere and keep going.”
Fortunes can change quickly in MLS, as Cincinnati can attest.
They finished 24th out of 24 teams in 2019, their inaugural season. In 2020 it was 26th of 26 teams and in 2021 it was 27th of 27. Three wooden spoons; now they stand atop the league.
Pat Noonan’s side come into Saturday’s match unbeaten in three matches, most recently a 3-0 win over Charlotte FC on Saturday.
Luciano Acosta is the central threat with 15 goals and 12 assists through 28 appearances, but there is a solid cast around the Argentine playmaker: Brandon Vazquez (six goals, four assists), Álvaro Barreal (four goals, six assists), and Dominique Badji (four goals, three assists) to name just a few, as well as newcomer, Gabonese forward Aaron Boupendza, who has four goals in seven appearances.
“They're, statistically, the second fastest team to get to goal. When they win it, they're very quick in transition, they're pretty direct with the ball,” noted Dunfield. “And then you've got a really fluid front three. Each brings different qualities, but together as a three they're very good. They’ve got two wing-backs that love to join the attack, put early balls in the box.”
“It'll be a nice challenge,” he added. “We need to freshen things up, structure wise, personnel wise, so there will be some changes on our end as well.”
Toronto know what lies ahead. They’re ready.
“I'm expecting them to be really good, they’re the first place team,” closed Kerr. “But I'm confident in our team.”