Toronto FC

Toronto FC face familiar foes New York City FC with new faces in the fold

New faces and familiar foes. 

When Toronto FC takes to the field against NYCFC on Saturday at BMO Field, it will be a chance for old friends to reunite and for new players to take centerstage. 

With the close of the MLS Primary Transfer Window on Monday TFC added two pieces in veteran forward CJ Sapong from Nashville SC and defender Aimé Mabika from Inter Miami CF.

“They'll both be available,” confirmed Bob Bradley on Friday. “CJ has been playing a lot, so it's easier to consider that you can use him from the start or in an important reserve role.”

“Aimé is a younger player. He got good minutes last year, hasn't played quite as much this year. He's had two good training sessions, [match day] minus-one you don't do too much, but yesterday he did well,” he continued. “Normally a player like that you want to get him a little bit more indoctrinated to things we do, whereas CJ’s role as a #9 and his experience, that's easier to inject quickly if you want.”

TRAINING SOUND | Bob Bradley - April 28, 2023

Bradley described Sapong as: “A strong presence up front, an unselfish #9 who is going to make hard runs in the box, whether it's to create the chance for himself or to open up spaces for others.”

“When he needs to be part of making pressure on the other team, he does that stuff very well. And he's a good guy. He's got a real strong presence. He's not loud, but he's a guy that teammates respect,” he continued. “On the field to have a #9 that you can count on, is always going to run in the box, is going to run into dangerous spots, run into spots where there's contact, where it's physical – not just hanging out, waiting for balls, but run into the areas where the sh** flies. He goes into those areas and that creates opportunities for him and for those around him. That's going to be important for us.”

Despite a wild week, the 34-year-old striker who played for Sporting KC, the Philadelphia Union, and the Chicago Fire before moving to Nashville is ready to contribute.

“Definitely a surprise and it's a little bit of a whirlwind,” said Sapong of the move. “Fortunately, I'm able to get right into the group and focus on a game.”

“The best thing is to just play football. Everything else will work itself over time, but it will be a process,” he continued. “I'm excited to start a new journey, a new chapter, to be with a group of guys, an organization, that's decorated and fighting for things. I want to be a part of that. It’s a good position for me.”

TRAINING SOUND | C.J. Sapong - April 28, 2023

Lining up opposite Toronto will be a team with whom they have crossed swords many times in the MLS regular season and MLS Cup Playoffs alike – that pool will expand later this season with the two drawn into the same group in the inaugural Leagues Cup.

Matches between these two always make for exciting action, but that Sean Johnson made the move from New York City to Toronto in the off-season adds yet another wrinkle – for those outside, at least.

“No, I don't think so,” replied the goalkeeper, asked if this game was more significant than usual. “It's just a part of the business, right? Now a new home, new club. We've been in a period now where we've been trying to find a consistent way to get results and it's another big opportunity at home with the fans behind us to do that.”

He did however spill the beans on his former club.

“I gave them all my secrets,” Johnson said jokingly. “You get to a point, this is Year 14 [for me], you play against a lot of guys, you’re in locker rooms that have played for a lot of different coaches and a lot of different teams, so you always have an idea of how a team is going to play.”

“You have cameras everywhere now, every game, every moment that's captured, you can go back and rewatch, can break down and see the things that teams clearly do, but the reality is on any given day a team can show up and do something completely different,” he laid out. “And you have to be willing and ready to adapt.”

TRAINING SOUND | Sean Johnson - April 28, 2023

NYCFC come to town in strong form, winners of their last two – at home to Nashville and FC Dallas – and unbeaten in four-straight.

Nick Cushing’s side have lost just once of their last eight matches after falling 2-0 on opening day away to Nashville.

“Expecting a group of players that is organized on both sides of the ball. They're in a good way, they've gotten a few good results now in a row and so a bit of momentum. I know the players very well, I know the coach very well, so looking forward to a really good game,” anticipated Johnson. “It'll be exciting to play against my old team.”

With both meetings between the sides falling early in the 2022 before Ronny Deila departed, TFC have yet to face Cushing, but that City Football Group identity remains the same even if some personnel have departed.

Talles Magno and Santiago Rodríguez, with three goals apiece, have led the offense for NYCFC, Gabriel Pereira has chipped in two as well, in addition to his team-leading three assists.

Deploying all three of them together in an attacking unit last weekend was just another possibility for Toronto to consider.

“Rodríguez, when he plays as the #9, is not a traditional fixed #9, he’s coming underneath, he's going into the half spaces. It's still 4-3-3, but he plays it in a different way – the exact opposite of what [Taty] Castellanos did for them for so many years,” highlighted Bradley. “He's pulling away from your centre-backs, he's sometimes moving to the outside.”

“They've been pretty fluid in their front three, you see Magno coming inside a lot more, Pereira operates as a starting point on the right, but obviously his ability to come in on his left foot,” he added. “Dynamic players, good players.”

The two teams split the matches last season, each winning at home – NYCFC 5-4 in New York and TFC 2-1 at BMO Field.

Should be tasty, even if there are some friends on opposite sides.

“Nah, I didn't block all my friends from the opposing team this week,” said Johnson, asked if he had to go radio silent ahead of the match. “I have good relationships with the guys that I've been close to, there's plenty of group texts that I've been a part of for years, those things don’t change, but when you step on the field and you step across the lines, it's a different mentality. It's us versus them.”

“Friends are friends when you're off the pitch, but once you're competing, you're only trying to do your best to get a result,” he closed. “You're going to have friends across the league and there's going to be many situations where you face off against people that you know, but the strongest competitors have that mentality.”