A few days after Saturday’s defeat to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Toronto FC were back at the BMO Training Ground in preparation for the next outing.
Six games remain in the 2023 MLS regular season.
TFC will round out this current trio of matches with two this week: the first on Wednesday away to Inter Miami CF and then the second in New York City on Saturday for a clash with NYCFC. Another trio of games sees them host FC Cincinnati before visits to Charlotte FC and the New York Red Bulls as September turns to October. And the season ends at BMO Field on October 21 against Orlando City SC.
It was a typical Monday at the training ground despite the special occasion that lies ahead.
“We had a really good review of the Vancouver game,” outlined Terry Dunfield of the team’s preparation. “There was a feeling after that meeting that there was some space to be exploited that we didn't at times and good stuff as well where we were able to get at their back three.”
“We wished we could take those goals back, but once we cleared the water, we put Vancouver behind us,” he continued. “There was a little bit of extra energy today.”
Toronto couldn’t follow up a strong result over the Philadelphia Union at the end of August with another victory, but the two Vancouver goals aside they felt they were the better team on the night.
“Versus Philadelphia was a good performance, the guys were ready,” said Victor Vázquez. “Against Vancouver we did the same. we were maybe better than them, but it was a 50-50 game, at the end two mistakes from us, we concede these two goals.”
“We are in a good way,” the midfielder continued. “We are trying to finish the season the best way possible. Go game-by-game, try to get as many points as possible, and finish the season as strong as possible to get to the new season in the best way possible.”
The degree of difficulty ramps up a touch midweek away to Inter Miami. Lionel Messi sat out their 5-2 loss away to Atlanta United on the weekend after returning from international duty with Argentina. There are some question marks over what role he will play against Toronto,
“We're hoping to see Messi,” replied Dunfield, asked his thoughts on the matter. “Since he's come to the league his work has been incredible. Not only individually, but how he's raised the stock of Inter Miami, the teammates around him, but also the stock of the league.”
The interim TFC head coach would not reveal if he had any secrets up his sleeve for dealing with such an individual threat: “Come on, you know I can't tell you that.”
Vázquez was a bit more straight-forward in that regard: “There is no plan to stop Messi.”
“The plan is just to play our football, to try to score more goals than them. That's the plan,” he added. “Messi is unstoppable. He's special, everybody knows that.”
Vázquez would know better than most what his former teammate is capable of. The two came up together through the FC Barcelona Academy, part of La Masia’s famous class of ‘87.
“It was special to play with him,” recalled Vázquez. “It's going to be a fun day to play on Wednesday.”
“He’s the best player in the world, he’s shown that many, many times, and he's showing it again here in MLS,” he continued. “It's going to be fun for all of us; for the young guys on the team, a good experience for them.”
This will be the first time the two face off against one another.
“I’m very excited to play against him and to play against [Sergio] Busquets and Jordi [Alba] and Miami because now they are one of the strongest teams in MLS,” he added. “It's going to be a tough game for sure, but we have to be focused on us. We have really good players, a really good team. The way we play, the way they play, it's going to be fun for all the fans to watch these kinds of games.”
Still working his way back to full fitness following a foot injury that sidelined him for much of the season, Vázquez has featured off the bench in Toronto’s last four matches.
“Victor's been first class since I've come in,” said Dunfield. “He's very influential in the changing room, he's been training like a beast, and he's fighting hard for minutes. It's a little bit tricky to fit Victor in right now. In every performance off the bench, his game has spoken for itself, he's been impactful.”
Having him back with the team has provided a welcome boost.
“My role is the same as before, it never changed,” Vázquez explained. “When we get older, we cannot play every game 90 minutes, even less in my case: coming from an injury that I was four-and-a-half months off the field is not easy when you are 36 years old, it’s not easy to get back with the same rhythm of the other guys.”
“I try to play the role as best I can,” he continued. “I’m an experienced guy, I’ve had a lot in my career. I try to help the young guys, I try to help the team. As I told Terry, ‘I'm ready whenever he needs me.’ If it's for 10 minutes, 10 minutes, if it’s for 15 minutes, 15 minutes, and if it's from the beginning, I will be ready too.”
With the quick turnaround, Dunfield may be forced to alter the starting XI which was trotted out for the last two games – a rare blessing this season. Vázquez is eager to be more involved, while newcomers Prince Owusu and Cassius Mailula are nearing a return to fitness as well.
Miami too have undergone some significant changes since the last meeting between the two – a 2-0 TFC win back in March where Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye scored in the second half.
Messi, Busquets, and Alba have come in. Tata Martino replaced Phil Neville as head coach. Miami won the 2023 Leagues Cup to lift their first piece of silverware and have a chance at another later this month with a spot in the 2023 US Open Cup Final against the Houston Dynamo.
TFC won that earlier match and the first-ever back in 2020, but Miami took the five between, including all three at home.
Miami enter midweek on the back of their first loss since Messi and company joined. They were unbeaten through the Leagues Cup, a US Open Cup semifinal, and three MLS matches.
Leonardo Campana leads the side with nine goals on the season, including a particularly stunning one at Atlanta on Saturday, while Ryan Taylor tops the assist table with five.
“We've seen different versions of Miami,” outlined Dunfield. “From when Messi first joined in the Leagues Cup to recent weeks, we've seen different shapes and structures. We're focused on us, but we'll definitely take some of the learnings from their previous games to guide some of our principles.”