Toronto FC

Reds look to return to winning ways in Nashville: "We have to go in there and battle”

Toronto FC head into Saturday night’s match away to Nashville SC unbeaten in five matches.

“You can say unbeaten in five, but one win in five,” countered Matt Hedges on Thursday. “We want to win more games.”

“Tying games is fine, but we’ve got to get three points, we’ve got to hold leads,” he continued. “We've been giving up leads – we’ve got to stop doing that. Winning games is what we need to do.”

Toronto has held a lead in five of their six matches this season, the scoreless draw in San Jose the sole exception. Only against Inter Miami CF did that advantage hold.

That the club is putting itself in those positions in positive, now it’s about seeing them out.

“The mentality is a mix between feeling like we're going in the right direction with a little bit of frustration that there's been games where there was real opportunity for three points,” said Bob Bradley. “I don't think anybody feels that there's one thing that needs to be fixed, it's a little bit more consistency, it's being able, when we create advantages, to be a little bit sharper, execute better.”

“That came into play last week for sure, where we had some good opportunities to make the next pass and really create a big chance and we weren't able to do it,” he continued, referencing the 2-2 draw against Charlotte FC on Saturday at BMO Field. “When your margin is small, if you don't take advantage of situations that you create, a little slip up and you've let something get away.”

Games are defined by those small margins. Over 90-plus minutes both teams will have theirs.

“If we’re not taking our chances, maybe they'll take theirs,” said Hedges. “Those one or two moments in the game.”

Nashville opened their season unbeaten in three, including a pair of home wins over NYCFC and CF Montreal, but lost away to the New England Revolution. A home defeat at the feet of FC Cincinnati would follow at the end of March, but a 2-0 win at Orlando City SC last weekend has them heading into Saturday’s clash in good spirits.

Gary Smith’s side, who have made the playoffs in each of their three seasons, has had a firm identity since joining MLS.

“They haven't changed too much in the last few years,” said Bradley. “They have a solid base in the way they play, some version of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. They mix up their ability to spread out the field, they hit in crosses, at times they can go direct towards [CJ] Sapong. [Hany] Mukhtar is a key: he's mobile, he's able to make plays; obviously had an incredible season last year.”

“Basic ideas that they do well,” he summarized. “Good on set-pieces.”

Mukhtar, the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, is leading the way again this season with three assists, while former TFC attacker Jacob Shaffelburg’s two goals top the NSC scoring chart.

One challenge will be the way Nashville looks to attack quickly from deep positions.

“We're going to have to be more compact; we can't get opened up too much,” cautioned Hedges. “They're vertical, they want to get on the move quickly. It's something that we have to be wary of all the time.”

“We always have to know that even if we have the ball or we're trying to attack,” he added. “They're ready to spring a counterattack.”

Not that that will change how TFC go about things. Whether home or away, the same overall identity is on display.

“Every team changes a little bit, but I don't think we want to change too much,” levelled Hedges. “What we've been doing defensively has been working. Maybe the way we want to press them or the way we try to counter what they do is what will change, but our overall mentality is not going to change.”

Saturday in Nashville will be Toronto’s fourth away game of the campaign. Playing away from home in MLS is always difficult.

“Brand new stadium, last time I was there with Dallas it was full, the fans were loud. It's a tough place to play,” said Hedges. “It seems like a lot of the stadiums are getting that way, where the home fans are making a good atmosphere. So we have to go in there and battle, that’s what it’s going to be.”

In such circumstances the first goal is always important. Even more so given that Nashville have won their last 31 matches when they open the scoring.

“They're a strong defensive team and with strong offensive teams when you get that first goal, you can settle back and play your style. That's what they do,” said Hedges. “They have great defenders and it's tough to break them down, especially when they get the first goal. We have to try to get the first goal, make them come out of their shell a little bit and make them play a little bit more.”