Refreshed after a few weeks off, Toronto FC return to the pitch on Saturday when they face the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.
The international break is an opportunity.
A convenient dividing line between the first and second halves of the season. It is a chance to pause, reflect, and prepare for what lies ahead.
“The team has shown a strong mentality, a resilience,” said Bob Bradley of the team’s progress through these opening months. “In moments when we've had some games go against us, we've still kept at it in a good way. That part, of mentality and resilience, sometimes finding ways to win when the football is not as good as we want it to be, those are all important things.”
“And now as we get into this next stretch, we want to see the whole thing come together a little bit more,” he continued. “We still feel that there's a lot of areas where our football gets better, where the ball moves faster, where our ability to get into the opponent's box and be more dangerous, attack a little bit faster. And then defensively the work of the team, the ability to understand if it is an opportunity to win the ball back quickly, is everybody ready? Are we engaged? And if that's not right, that we are still defending as a team from front to back and not getting spread out all over the field.”
“There's been some moments in recent games where the group that has needed to drop back quickly and defend has done a good job,” Bradley highlighted. “But I still feel like we can do a better job of not allowing those moments to happen and a better job of also staying more connected when we need to defend deep.”
The foundational ideas do not change, it’s just about strengthening those elements, bringing them and the team together.
“It’s mainly been stringing passes together and really being a team that dictates the game,” explained Kosi Thompson. “We want to control the game at all times, we want to have the ball, we want to dictate where the game is going to go, how fast it's going to be played. That's been our main focus for the past two weeks.”
14 games have been played in the 2022 MLS regular season, there are 20 more to go.
As is tradition, the end of the midseason pause brings on the summer grind.
TFC will play five matches in the next two weeks – Saturday at Red Bull before three straight at home with the visits of Atlanta United, the Columbus Crew, and Seattle Sounders FC in quick succession.
Add in next Wednesday’s Canadian Championship semifinal against CF Montreal and it’s going to be a hectic few weeks.
“By going step by step,” replied Jesús Jiménez, asked how the team will approach this furious stretch. “We have the first game on Saturday and we'll see after – step by step by step.”
By step, by step.
The time off has allowed for some recuperation. And the absences have allowed other players to get valuable time on the pitch, so when they are called upon in moments such as this, they are ready.
“You hope that the work of the whole season has everybody ready,” levelled Bradley. “You're going to need to call on different players at different times.”
“And you go a game at a time,” he continued. “Training lately has been good. I see positive things that hopefully we're going to see when the games start up again.”
It has helped that the last time Toronto took to the field, they left with a trophy, winning the 2020 Voyageurs Cup in a penalty shootout on June 4 in Hamilton against Forge FC. The first piece of silverware in the Bob Bradley era.
“Guys were excited about that,” said the coach. “A moment for the club, the fans, that is important. Hopefully that's a sign of good things to come.”
“The circumstances were a little bit unusual, but nonetheless what it means for the history of the club, what it means for fans, what it means for the work that we're doing,” Bradley added. “Everybody understood that and it made for a good night.”
It was Thompson’s first professional trophy, he called it ‘a great milestone for this team.’
“Everyone's fairly new, still getting to know each other, but that really brought us together, gave us a raise of confidence,” he continued. “Before that, the win against Chicago too, so two wins.”
A pair of victories, one in the league and one in the cup, the hard-fought 2-2 draw at D.C. United earlier have TFC unbeaten in three matches through all competitions.
Saturday’s clash with the Red Bulls will be the second meeting between the teams. New York came to BMO Field and won 4-1 back at the beginning of March.
It was a strange game, as ones against Red Bull so often are.
Toronto were in control of large passages of the game, but it seemed every half-chance for the visitors found the back of the net.
“Whenever you play a Red Bull team you have to understand that there's going to be parts of the game that become a little bit like chaos – that's what they want,” said Bradley. “They play balls long, they fight for second balls, and then they play off of those moments.”
“That was very much the case in the first game against them. We had a lot of the ball, moved the ball forward in good ways, but less than a minute into the game Jesús was offside, the keeper took the free kick, played a long ball, there's one or two headers, and now the ball is free and now they're into the box with a shot,” he recalled. “One of the goals that they scored came off of a throw-in – they throw it into an area where it's crowded and they're quite good when the ball is bouncing around of just putting the ball forward and trying to play off of that next ball.”
“When you play Red Bull teams there will be moments where you play on their terms and then other moments where if you can get control of the game and you can make the right passes and play quickly, then we can put them on our terms,” Bradley pinpointed. “That's true every time you play a Red Bull team, you have to understand what the game is going to look like.”
A suspension to forward Patryk Klimala, who had three assists in that first meeting, was announced on Thursday, so he will not be available this weekend. His four goals and three assists will be missed, but between club lead scorer Lewis Morgan (six goals) and top assist man Omir Fernandez (six assists) New York are not short on firepower.
The Red Bulls played once during the break, falling 2-0 away to Charlotte FC on June 11. At home they are riding a four-game unbeaten run – a trio of draws before battering D.C. 4-1 at the end of May.
Toronto know they are in for a tough outing.
“A hard game, they play very well, they know how they play,” said Jiménez. “I remember the game here, we had some bad luck because every shot was scored, it was hard for us. I think [they] will be similar.”
Added Thompson: “Be ready for everything.”
“It's going to be a chaotic game, that's their style. We need to expect everything and be ready to adapt to everything. Everyone has to be locked in 100%,” he continued. “And from there we just play our football.”