Toronto FC return to the pitch on Wednesday night when FC Cincinnati come to BMO Field.
It will be their sixth game since September 11 and that fixture congestion has consequences. With each passing game, the injury list has grown.
Jozy Altidore, Ayo Akinola, and Ralph Priso have been out for several weeks. Tsubasa Endoh, Dom Dwyer, and Jordan Perruzza recently joined the tally, while Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta were both forced off on the weekend against the Colorado Rapids.
Michael Bradley will return from his yellow card accumulation suspension and Alejandro Pozuelo is nearing his, but that is still quite the number of players who will not be available come kickoff.
“[It hasn’t] been only this week, right? We have been very tight the whole season,” highlighted Javier Perez in his prematch Zoom conference call. “We have been creative. The players that have been on the field have responded well, but it's no secret that we have a list of five strikers and only one is available and then the centre-back position now gets some players that are injured.”
“I want to focus on the players that are available because I am very happy with the way we are working, the way we are playing,” he stressed. “We just focus on the positives and we have a whole team in the background working hard to support these players, to get back into the game as soon as possible. And I know everybody wants to contribute, everybody wants to be part of the team.”
“[Injuries] are not going to be a hurdle for us,” Perez added. “We need just to stay focused and continue with the good work if we want to be rewarded.”
After a trying August, Toronto have found their form over the last month.
Following a defeat away to Cincinnati, the team put in a very strong performance against Inter Miami CF, only to be denied a goal from Jacob Shaffelburg at one end and then see the visitors score a late penalty kick at the other.
That was followed by an impressive 2-1 win over Nashville SC and a 4-0 Canadian Championship victory over York United FC. The 0-0 draw away to Colorado may not have been the prettiest game, but it was an effective road performance.
Two-straight clean-sheets, two goals against in the last four matches, but more to the point, being a team that is difficult to play against.
“It's been going back to what made us successful for so many years,” explained Mark Delgado. “Just playing simple, playing our game, moving off each other, combination plays. Just the simple things, the basic things, that helped us for so many years.”
“And not overthinking things – just play what you see and just kind of have fun, keep the ball moving, don't overthink,” he continued. “We just control what we can control. I feel like we've gotten a good rhythm going these last few games.”
Toronto will look to keep that flow going when Cincinnati comes to town midweek.
Since that win over Toronto, Cincinnati have lost three-straight matches – most recently a 4-2 defeat away to D.C. United on Saturday. Jaap Stam was subsequently relieved of his head coaching duties.
Cincinnati has won both previous meetings between the clubs this year, each by a 2-0 scoreline.
The first meeting came on June 26 when TFC were still based in Orlando. Allan Cruz scored after just four minutes with Luciano Acosta adding the second in the 68th minute.
In the second earlier this month, Brazilian striker Brenner netted before half-time and Haris Medunjanin slotted home the second in the 58th minute.
“They have quality players around the pitch, they’ve got players who can hurt you,” cautioned Delgado. “We know what to expect coming into this game. We know their strengths and we know their weaknesses.”
“We'll be better prepared coming into this game. Last game against them we were a bit unlucky, but we came out of the game feeling pretty good,” he noted. “So having games where we've played pretty good and had some results, we're feeling pretty good coming into this game.”
Cincinnati too are having a forgettable season, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.
“They are very efficient,” said Perez. “The way they played in the last game against us, it was Medunjanin and [Yuya] Kubo taking advantage of us between lines. And then there are the two players that are very dangerous: Brenner is clinical, he’s the one scoring the goals – four in the last 10 games – and then Acosta that moves all over the field.”
“They have other players that are very effective as well. [Isaac] Atanga and [Alvaro] Barreal play wide and provide good service. When Cruz plays, he goes wide to receive the ball,” he listed. “If you let them play, they are going to hurt you because they have quality.”
“On the other side, their weakness, or the point that is not as strong, is the defense,” Perez added. “That's the part that we have to try to exploit, but if you give them time and you give them confidence, they will come and they will hurt you.”
With Stam’s departure, former Red Tyrone Marshall, who was overseeing Cincinnati’s U-19 side, will take the reins on an interim basis.
Marshall spent a season-and-a-half with TFC, joining midway through their inaugural season in 2007, making some 40 MLS appearances for the club before moving on to the Seattle Sounders.
Just how the change on the sidelines will affect Cincinnati’s on-field approach is unclear. One thing is certain though.
“We know what happens every time there is a change on the bench. There’s always a reaction,” pinpointed Perez. “[We] are going to have to be very alert because we know that the players are going to come here hungry, trying to prove a point.”
“[Marshall is] a new coach that knows very well the league, has been around for many years as a player and now this is a good opportunity for him to start on a good foot,” he continued. “But, for us, it doesn't change anything in terms of the game plan. It just changes the mindset because we always have to come alert, this time even more alert.”
Added Delgado: “It doesn't affect us at all.”
“We continue working on what we've been working on, we've been in a good groove right now as a team and everyone's feeling pretty good individually. We know when a head coach gets fired the group of players are pretty eager and pretty motivated to prove a point, so we're expecting them to be on their toes and ready to come out strong against us,” he echoed. “We’ve got to match the level going into the match.”