Toronto FC

Reds host St. Louis CITY for first time: "We're going to have to be on our ‘A’ game”

Toronto FC has had little time to nurse the wounds of Tuesday’s loss away to Orlando City SC. The next challenge, the next opponent, St. Louis CITY SC, lies in wait as the two prepare to meet at BMO Field on Saturday night.

A quick turnaround can be a blessing or a curse. The Saturday-Tuesday turnaround against Orlando was the former, but the club are hoping the extra day heading into Saturday will turn that tide.

“It's good that we have a quick turnaround now and we have something to look forward to, a new game,” said Alonso Coello, who returned to the starting lineup midweek. “It was a tough loss and in soccer, whenever that happens, you have to learn from the mistakes made in the game, but you cannot really get stuck in that.”

“You have to travel forward and look onto the next game,” he continued. “We have a new opportunity to start getting some results.”

The back-to-back losses since Terry Dunfield came in as interim head coach have been very different affairs: Saturday against Real Salt Lake was a post and three minutes away from a really positive result; on Tuesday pretty much anything that could go wrong did.

Injuries, international absences, and now a suspension have been ever-present obstacles this season, but TFC are not wasting time feeling sorry for themselves.

“It would be easy to go there, but one of my learnings from the group was to remain positive and not  give ourselves an excuse,” said Dunfield. “We have tons of quality. As we got into the weeds of the goals, the feeling after Orlando was: it there for us, if we can make some plays.”

“We know what's coming our way against St. Louis,” he foreshadowed. “We're going to have to dominate the chaos. It'll be a little bit more of a street fight. It'll be under the lights at BMO Field. It's just the game we need.”

Less than two weeks into the new regime, Toronto continue to evolve.

“We’re trying to work well on the field, going back to the basics, in terms of how we want to play, how we want to do things,” explained Coello. “And then trying to create an environment of competition inside the locker room, stay united, stay together, and try and get this thing going.”

12 matches remain in the 2023 MLS regular season. 

After St. Louis TFC will face the Chicago Fire away next weekend. The league then pauses for the inaugural edition of the Leagues Cup before returning on August 20 to resume the race for the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Heading into this weekend TFC sit seven points below the line. 

“In his league things can change very quickly,” reminded Coello. “If you start getting some wins, you get back into the fight for a playoff spot.”

“Belief is high,” he continued. “Individually we have good players, we have a good team, we have a good roster, so now it's up to us to start getting that confidence back. Playing for each other, playing for the club, and doing things right.”

It’s not unusual for a handful of TFC II or TFC Academy players to hop into first team training, especially with the squad numbers as limited as they are at the moment. But with TFC II in action on Friday night against Columbus Crew 2 at York Lions Stadium, a good number of TFC Academy players were on the field this week. 

In part it was a little trick Dunfield picked up from a recent visit to his former club, Manchester City.

“They always have five players that train with the first team from Manchester. It's really important for the culture of the team and it also drives intensity,” he explained. “Having some of our younger players in the first team squad brings that and then watching the players train yesterday they're almost tactical architects.”

“I've been working with them for the last year, so the philosophy we're trying to get across now – they're almost like when you go bowling and you've got those rails,” Dunfield continued. “Our young players are almost the rails for our first team guys: this is what we're trying to do.”

16-year-old Lazar Stefanovic was excellent in his two appearances. Jesús Batiz provided a spark when he came on in Florida. Just as Coello and Kobe Franklin have been since making their debuts earlier in the season. Expect others to get their chance to shine. 

“What we've seen is the kids can hang,” said Dunfield. “They've been able to give some of our guys a lift physically and a breather when they need it.”

“Rather than playing an experienced player out of position, we're going to trust in our young homegrown players – that they can take care of business. Lazar has been a good example of it, Jesús has been a good example of it, but also we want to be true to our young players and set them up for success as well.”

St. Louis come to town one of the stories of the season.

An expansion club, flying high at the top of the Western Conference, they announced themselves in MLS by winning their first five matches of the season and haven’t looked back.

Bradley Carnell’s side arrives on the back of two-straight wins – 2-1 away to the San Jose Earthquakes and most recently 2-0 at home against the Colorado Rapids – playing a high-octane style that strikes Dunfield as a hybrid of two other MLS teams.  

His tagline for the match says it all: “Dominate the chaos.”

“They're going to start quickly, they’re on the front foot, they’re top of the West,” continued Dunfield. “They are a hybrid, in my opinion, of the Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls. They'll play direct into the front to pick up second balls, they'll step out and press, so just managing that chaos is going to be our number one key.”

Carnell, a South African international who played in Germany, was an assistant coach with the Red Bulls before joining St. Louis.

American forward Nicholas Gioacchini leads the side with eight goals in 20 matches, while German midfielder Eduard Löwen’s six assists top that column.

“A tough game,” anticipated Coello. “Obviously, they're a very good team. They're doing things very well. Very physical. We're going to have to be on our ‘A’ game.”

“We're going to have to do things very well if we want to be able to get a result, but, as of now, every game is hard,” he continued. “We have to focus on ourselves, do things right ourselves, and then everything else should work well too.”