Days removed from going toe-to-toe with the best team in the league, Toronto FC are back on the pitch Wednesday night when they hit the road, Georgia-bound, for a match against Atlanta United FC.
August has been a difficult month.
Running a gauntlet of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, TFC has not been able to make up the ground they had hoped with losses to the first-placed New England Revolution and the fifth-placed Philadelphia Union and draws against second-placed NYCFC and third-placed Nashville SC.
Despite those setbacks, the team has been turning the corner on their season.
“The group is mentally in a good place,” said Javier Perez during Monday’s prematch Zoom conference call. “We are obviously disappointed, especially after the last game – the feeling is that we deserved more than losing.”
“We’ve found a way to play well and that's the best recipe to get the results,” he continued. “When you are down there in the table it’s difficult to get things [going] your way. We are ready for Atlanta, we have a good run of three games ahead of us, and we are looking forward to that.”
Toronto closes the month with three road matches before MLS pauses for the September international break.
Following Atlanta midweek the travels continue with an away date at Inter Miami CF on Saturday before next Friday’s derby against CF Montreal at Stade Saputo.
One game at a time.
“We need to go game-by-game,” urged Alejandro Pozuelo. “We need to focus on Wednesday because we have a difficult game, but we know we need to take points. It’s a difficult opponent, but we know we can win there. Positive mentality, positive football.”
TFC has been playing positive football under Perez these recent weeks. Leaving aside difficult outings in Chicago and Philadelphia, that has been the biggest difference in the side. Whether Orlando City SC, the New York Red Bulls, New England, Nashville, or NYCFC, TFC has been on the front foot.
At the most basic level results come down to two things: putting the ball in the opponent’s net and keeping it out of one’s own.
“We are ticking all the boxes, following the right steps,” said Perez. “Stabilizing the team defensively was the first step. Although we still concede goals now we make it a little bit more predictable [for our defenders].”
“Then the next step was to get more control of the game, which in the second half of NYCFC and then the last game we did as well,” he continued. “We need to do that consistently. And now is how we are more effective at scoring goals.”
“We have to look a bit more forward, look to make more runs in behind, connecting a little bit closer to the goal,” Perez elaborated. “And ultimately to get players inside the box.”
Toronto have been getting in those positions. Now it’s to be more goal dangerous.
“We try to train it, we try to do the best that we can,” reflected Pozuelo. “This year is different. Last year, the game we played on Saturday, we win easy. And this year, you have great chances, you create good opportunities, and the ball doesn’t want to go in.”
“This is the most difficult part in soccer. We know we played good, on Saturday we had all the control of the game, good chances against a good team,” he continued. “They are first in the table and we dominated 90 minutes – they only had two chances and they score two times and they win the game.”
“This is soccer,” Pozuelo levelled. “But we feel good, the team feels comfortable, we created chances, we played good, and we need to continue to play like this. This is the way to win games.”
At the other end, through 19 matches TFC have kept just one clean-sheet.
“It’s a difficult pill to swallow for us because the moment that we have a clean-sheet is going to be the moment that this team really has that confidence level high and it's going to be really difficult to beat us,” replied Perez. “We know we have quality, we know that we have a good squad, we just need to click that final piece at the back and make sure that we don't concede goals. Once we have that part of the game figured out, things can only go up.”
On Wednesday, Atlanta, who have struggled themselves this season, and Josef Martinez, their star striker, will be doing all they can to prevent Toronto from taking that next step.
“It’s not only Martinez,” cautioned Perez. “They’ve been playing a 3-4-3, the three players up front, [Ezequiel] Barco, are very dangerous.”
“Martinez is just a killer, he’s that striker that puts the ball in the back of the net, he’s clinical, especially in transition. And that's what they like to do, they like to run,” he continued. “He’s scored three goals in the last four games.”
Marecelino Moreno leads the side with six goals and two assists, Martinez has five goals, while Barco has three goals and three assists.
“We have to make sure that we don't get isolated at the back, that there is always an extra player, no one-vs-one situations or one-vs-ones against the goalkeeper,” Perez highlighted. “Trying to minimize the risk by adding an extra player at the back that helps us control and make the game a little bit more predictable defensively.”
After a lengthy spell recovering from an ACL injury and a bizarre period where he was banished from the team by former coach Gabriel Heinze midseason, Martinez has looked in recent weeks like the player that devastated opposition back-lines throughout his first three seasons.
Between his resurgence and Heinze’s departure the team has found a measure of stability under interim coach Rob Valentino. Combine that with the news that Seattle Sounders assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda would be taking over the managerial duties and the Five-Stripes will be looking to climb up the Eastern Conference themselves.
They enter Wednesday’s clash unbeaten in three having drawn 2-2 away to Montreal at the start of the month before winning 3-2 away to the Columbus Crew and, most recently, 1-0 against LAFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
“Every time you see a team making a change, somehow it makes an effect and it looks like for them that worked, they’ve won the last couple of games,” observed Perez. “Regardless that before they didn’t have the results, it’s a team that’s very tough to play, especially when they play at home.”
“That field is a little bit different, a little bit specific, the ball rolls very quickly. That combined with Martinez establishing [back] into the starting eleven, they have that identity of fast pace, fast transition, and that makes them very difficult and uncomfortable to play against,” he added. “I see a game very competitive and challenging for us, but we go there with the same mentality: to fight for the three points.”
Wednesday will be a special game for one TFC player in particular, as Yeferson Soteldo will square off against his friend and compatriot Martinez.
“It’s a good question for him – I don’t know,” laughed Pozuelo, asked if Soteldo was looking forward to the match. “But yeah, for sure, they want to play, they are good friends, they want to win. Atlanta want to win and Yeferson wants to win.”
This will be the first of three meetings between the sides this season, with the other two coming in October.
Toronto have won the last three encounters: 1-0 last season when Pablo Piatti scored the game-winner in Connecticut, the 2019 Conference Final at Atlanta where Nick DeLeon played the hero, advancing TFC to the MLS Cup Final with a late strike, and a 3-2 win earlier that season at BMO Field where Pozuelo nabbed a brace.
“We’ve had good games in the past, when we won during the [2019 MLS Cup Playoffs]. We know we can go there and win,” Pozuelo said. “They are like us, they don't have good results, but they also have good players. We want to see a good game and I hope we can take the three points because this is the most important.”