A week on from ending up on the wrong side of a nine-goal thriller, Toronto FC have been hard at work preparing for their next match.
TFC will face FC Cincinnati on Saturday at BMO Field, a match that kicks off the first three-game week of the season.
Toronto and Cincinnati will meet for a return fixture in Ohio on Wednesday before the Reds continue west to visit Canadian cousins Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Cincy have struggled in their three seasons in MLS, never finishing higher than 12th in the Eastern Conference and 24th overall. But with a new coach, Pat Noonan, the sixth man to lead the side (though two were interim managers), they have found a measure of more solid footing thus far this year.
They may enter Saturday’s clash winless in four, but results last month against Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF and strong performances more recently against CF Montreal and LAFC have them trending in a better direction than years past.
“They're an improved team,” levelled Bob Bradley on Friday. “A coaching change, Pat Noonan comes from Philadelphia, so you can see that there's improvement in the team for sure and some talented players. I've seen that on a number of days this season.”
Said defender Shane O’Neill: “It's going to be a tough game.”
“It's going to be a team that's going to compete really hard and try and play the game on their terms,” he anticipated. “It's really important at home to impose ourselves and play the tempo and pace that we want to play at. You can see it in their results – they have a little bit more belief and they're going to come out of the traps pretty quickly. We’ve got to make sure that we match the intensity.”
Brandon Vázquez leads the side with five goals through seven matches, though he missed their 2-1 defeat against LAFC last weekend through injury. Ever-threatening Luciano Acosta has been a key contributor once more, collecting two goals and two assists on the season, and earlier this month they added Nigerian midfielder, Obinna Nwobodo as a designated player. He could make his debut this weekend.
Bradley has factored that possibility into his thinking.
“I've watched him when he played in Turkey,” replied the TFC coach. “He's got a good engine. He's athletic and quick in the way he defensively handles situations, solid technically. A player who, deeper in the midfield, is going to be responsible for putting out fires, picking up loose balls, that kind of stuff.”
The added wrinkle of playing the same team back-to-back will be more of a factor in the second meeting.
“It's not ideal. I don't like it, but it is what it is,” said Bradley. “You prepare for the first game and then in a midweek situation you quickly take from the first game and figure out physically how you come out of it and adjust for the second game.”
Early in the season, every match, whether it ends in victory or defeat, is about making progress. Even difficult defeats in wild matches, perhaps especially those ones, will contain valuable lessons for the rest of the campaign.
“It was one of those games where you really want to look at what you're doing as an individual first and then as a collective to see what went wrong,” laid out O’Neill. “You can't lose sight of the fact that New York City won [MLS Cup] last year and that was the toughest game we've played all year.”
“So trying to balance all those things, but it's important that we keep the confidence high going into this next game,” he continued. “We were on a good run, games like that can unsettle you a little bit, so this next game is really important to stay to the task and keep the confidence.”
April was an interesting month for TFC.
They returned from the March international break to pick up a second-straight win, defeating NYCFC 2-1 at BMO Field. A hard-fought 2-2 draw away to Real Salt Lake saw them extend that unbeaten run to three matches and an impressive 2-1 win over table-topping Philadelphia Union at BMO Field made it four.
In New York they took a two-goal lead over NYCFC before the home side netted five in a row to wrestle control of the game. Even then TFC found a way back into the game with two late goals.
“For me it's still about improving from game to game. Taking from every game, applying,” stressed Bradley. “We've done a pretty good job of that thus far.”
“It was an important week for us. NYCFC was the best team we played. They were better than they were when we played them at home. What we talked about with our group was just that when the bar gets raised in a game, when physically a team has a harder edge, when there are moments when they have advantages – come on, we can do it,” he relayed. “That's what better games are all about.”
“Not everybody is as good as NYCFC, they're the defending champs, but you still need to be able to take things from that game and make sure in a home game the next week that that type of an improvement shows in terms of intensity and in the way we go after this game,” Bradley urged. “When the bar got raised a little bit last week: are there still things that were okay? Sure, no doubt about it. Did we have enough guys that played at their best level? No, I don't think so.”
The MLS season is long.
“We’re taking steps to where we want to get to,” assessed O’Neill. “At the end of the day, everybody in the building wants to be a team that no matter where the game is, who we’re playing, it's a game that we expect to win. That takes time.”
“We were on a little bit of a good run there, now we've been brought back down to earth,” he continued. “And I think it's going to be a good challenge for us to see mentally how strong we can be at home to put on a really strong performance.”
As an extra treat for the fans, Saturday will be a double header with TFC II facing FC Cincinnati 2 at 6 pm.
The players are excited for the opportunity to show themselves on a bigger stage, so too is Bradley: “Yes, very important and exciting.”
“So far the work between the first team and the second team has gone well. There's different players from the second team that train with us on many different occasions. Really good communications between the staff,” he continued. “I've seen all the games, but I've enjoyed when the games have been at York [Lions Stadium, TFC II’s home base for league matches], having the chance to see what those games look like.”
“There's been some good moments in every game,” Bradley added. “And now the opportunity in BMO with fans takes it to another level.”