After a long break, Toronto FC are back in action with the visit of CF Montreal to BMO Field on Sunday evening.
It’s been too long.
“I was saying to some of my technical staff last weekend, it’s strange not having a game,” said Terry Dunfield after training on Friday. “We’ve been missing it. Our guys are chomping at the bit, as we are.”
“The last three weeks has been like a mini preseason,” he continued. “On the physical side last week we hit some new personal bests, which was great. On the technical/tactical side, we've continued to grow nicely and then on the culture side we're working hard to become more of a united team. Hopefully you'll see that on Sunday.”
A slight pause in the action midseason is not uncommon, whether for a FIFA World Cup or Concacaf Gold Cup. But this year’s for the 2023 Leagues Cup felt longer. Three weeks is a lot of time to pause, digest what has come before, refresh, recharge, and get ready to go again.
Three matches – home against Montreal, away to the Columbus Crew next weekend and back home to the Philadelphia Union the following Wednesday – will wrap up August. Toronto will then have seven more games over September and October to push themselves into post-season consideration.
This time has been invaluable.
“We've continued to build on some of the framework we set over the past five weeks into these three, where with some time and being purposeful with our training, we've been able to continue to grow,” explained Dunfield. “New faces coming into the sessions has really helped, bodies coming back from injury, there's a little bit of momentum growing.”
“Four out of the six games we were close,” he reminded. “And hopefully the marginal gains of getting fitter, growing tactically, and the big one is coming together as a team starts to change some of our results.”
There have been some familiar faces around the BMO Training Ground these past few weeks.
Sebastian Giovinco has been training at the facility and Dwayne De Rosario has been working with the forwards.
“DeRo has been working with our strikers for the past three weeks,” said Dunfield. “Nobody knows this league better than him, what it feels like to play in an MLS game, and how to score.”
“He's done a fantastic job with our front line; helping Prince [Owusu] integrate into what's going to come his way on Sunday,” he continued. “It's been great to have him as part of our technical staff.”
There is a fresh air around the side.
“With Terry it’s been good,” said Victor Vazquez. “In training we are playing some good football. We don't have the results yet, but we feel that everything is going in the right direction even though we are not showing that on the pitch.”
Recent forward additions Owusu and Cassius Mailula are available for selection. Victor Vázquez and Lorenzo Insigne were back involved in training this week, and Michael Bradley has been back involved all the while.
Latif Blessing picked up a knock against Atlas that will sideline him for the weekend and Sean Johnson’s hand injury is being assessed, but Tomás Romero was excellent in his first start against St. Louis CITY SC in July.
Toronto are getting healthier. The side has some options.
“Can you say that again?” joked Dunfield. “It's amazing. It's really lifted training this week. There's quality, there’s mentorship, and just the presence in training has been great. Michael's been with us for the full three weeks – our Kyle Lowry is back – he'll be available on Sunday, which is nice. Lorenzo and Victor joined the team this week. They’re questionable at the moment. We’ll assess them tomorrow.”
“He’s so tall,” quipped the interim coach. “Michael is such a good leader.”
“He leads by example. He brings a presence to the field, and competitiveness; he brings the best out of players around them,” Dunfield listed. “There's some intangibles that he brings that we've really missed during my eight weeks.”
Montreal won both previous meetings this season: a 2-0 at Stade Saputo in May days after knocking TFC out of the Canadian Championship at BMO Field 2-1.
Hernan Losada’s side, despite a dramatic shootout win over UNAM Pumas at home after a 2-2 draw, also exited the Leagues Cup after the group stage. In MLS play Montreal entered the break with a 2-0 win over Charlotte, a result that halted a slide of three losses and four winless.
They currently sit on the wrong side of the playoff line as play resumes.
“They're very comfortable with the ball,” noted Dunfield. “If they're able to get into a rhythm, they can hurt you. They’ve got a nice box in midfield and the back three are tough to lock on to, but you can't read too much into the previous games in derby games.”
“What's special about it is you’re living in the moment and that will be the case on Sunday,” he continued. “We, as a club, know we owe the fans a performance and I don't think there could be a better game than Montreal at home.”
Toronto-Montreal, under the Canadian National Exhibition lights, couldn’t imagine a better way to kick off the rest of the season.
“A big game on Sunday for us. Every game is a big game for us, but against Montreal it's always a bigger game,” said Vázquez. “We have to be focused on just the three points. Of course, we want to play the best way possible, but it's about winning the game. It's a good game after a long break to have at home in front of our supporters.”