A busy month kicks off for Toronto FC on Sunday when they welcome Nashville SC to BMO Field.
Well rested following a week-long pause and in good spirits, the club is ready to go again, looking to extend the four-game unbeaten run that was precipitated by Javier Perez taking over the managerial reins and the news that, finally, the team would be able to return home.
“Just being home has revived our spirits,” explained Omar Gonzalez on Friday from the BMO Training Ground over Zoom. “Orlando was pretty bad and so coming home to Toronto, sleeping in our beds, being in our homes, has been incredible for the morale, for our spirits.”
“Things are positive around here. It feels vastly different than it was just a month ago. Everyone is livelier, everyone seems to be happier. And in my experience, when you're happy you perform,” he continued. “Results have gone our way, we wanted a couple more wins, especially here at home, but we'll take what we can get right now and we want to keep on moving things along and keep on improving. We're not satisfied with where we are and we want to keep pushing.”
A 3-2 win away to the league-leading New England Revolution before the Gold Cup break was followed by a pair of 1-1 draws at BMO Field against Orlando City SC and the New York Red Bulls before hitting the road and navigating a barrage of shots to earn a hard-fought 2-1 win away to the Chicago Fire last weekend.
Eight points from 12 available – a tidy enough haul, but TFC want more.
That cadence of games in quick succession followed by a week-long pause will be the signature for the month ahead.
Nashville kicks off a run of three games in six days with a midweek trip to Pennsylvania for a date against the Philadelphia Union followed by next Saturday’s visit of NYCFC to Toronto.
A week later the Revolution come to town, no doubt bent on revenge, with away trips to Atlanta United and Inter Miami CF seeing out the series.
The month climaxes with an away derby day at CF Montreal on August 27.
Each of those week-long windows will be extremely important going forward, as it is there that real work to develop the side can be done. The smaller windows are reduced to recovery and preparation.
“A full week, more than anything, gives you the ability to tie things up,” said Perez. “If there is something that you or the team doesn't feel 100% comfortable with you can try something else and make sure that we get more stability. We are finding that stability and now that has to translate on the field and ultimately on results.”
When he first took the wheel, Perez’s priority was to sort out the defensive side of the game. While there remains work to be done on that front the team has conceded just five goals in four matches compared to the 27 allowed in the first 11 games.
In the coming weeks the coach hopes that the other side of the ball responds similarly.
“The most important duty was to find stability defensively and once we find that it would be how we take this team to the next level offensively,” Perez laid out. “We have a squad with very talented players and we need to find how to maximize their abilities and their potential.”
“I'm a coach that likes to see our team perform with the ball,” he continued. “Once we have stabilized defensively we will focus more on the offensive part of the game.”
That simplicity and clarity has been a powerful tool.
“What Javi has brought is being real clear with guys in what he expects from individual players, but also the group,” said Gonzalez. “He isn't trying to fix the wheel or change the wheel, it's just a clear picture of this is what we're going to do, this is how we're going to do it.”
“Very concise, simple, and, at the end of the day, just lets us be free to play what the game gives us,” he continued. “He gives us a clear picture and then we have to take it from there – he's given us that freedom to figure it out.”
“He expects everyone to work defensively, expects us to work as a group. It's simple stuff, but it's made the biggest difference,” Gonzalez added. “We just have to keep improving upon it.”
Sunday will be a good test of how far TFC have come.
Nashville enter the match tied for third in the Eastern Conference – Friday night wins from Orlando and NYCFC saw both leap-frog ahead or level, respectively.
And Gary Smith’s side come to town unbeaten as well – through seven matches, stretching back to their dramatic 3-2 win over TFC on June 23.
Hany Mukhtar leads the side with seven goals and four assists on the season, while CJ Sapong has provided a wealth of MLS experience and attacking punch – nabbing five goals himself, four of which have come in the last five games.
“They are a very, very strong side, and they've been on a run of seven games straight undefeated, so obviously they are doing a lot of good things,” began Perez. “They have a really good distribution of the players on the field, so they can make an impact defensively right away. And then when they are in possession of the ball they are clinical.”
“They have good players with quality up front. Sapong is doing really well for them. Mukhtar is a class player that has very good skills one-on-one and on set-pieces. And then there are other players that are very important like [Randall] Leal in transition and players with a lot of experience like Dax McCarty,” he detailed. “All these components, put together, they have a very strong side and we expect a very challenging game Sunday.”
Nashville also won the only meeting between the sides prior to this season when they knocked Toronto out of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs with a late 1-0 win last November in Connecticut – Daniel Rios netting in the 108th minute was all they needed to advance.
This will be their first-ever visit to BMO Field and, oddly enough, Nashville are winless through four away matches this season.
“We’ve had a couple of good matches with Nashville,” recalled Gonzalez. “What I see from them is just a quality group. They like to stay in the game, always focused, always in it. Every player on the field is committed to what they're doing, which makes it tough to play against them, and they're very organized, defensively, they work together.”
“It's going to be the same thing on Sunday,” he anticipated. “We're going to find a team who's going to be away from home – a clear game-plan for them – it’s going to be difficult. It's going to be on us to be the protagonist – we’re here at home – to push the game.”
“We've made good strides and so we want to continue in that direction. We need to focus on what we can do, how we show up, the beginning of the games, beginning of the second half,” Gonzalez stressed. “And if we're all committed, if we're all fighting for each other, then our quality will shine through and, hopefully, get us a favourable result.”