Toronto FC

Toronto FC face stern test against Orlando City SC amidst busy schedule

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As April turns to May, Toronto FC are about to get a lot busier.

This week, Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, was a sample of what lies ahead.

Between six MLS matches and the two legs of the quarterfinal stage of the Canadian Championship next month will be action packed.

Toronto heads to Florida to face Orlando City SC on Saturday night in good spirits, having halted a losing slide with last weekend’s 1-0 home win over the New England Revolution, the emphatic 5-0 defeat of Simcoe County Rovers FC midweek was a chance to shift the frame a little.

MLS matches are always close-fought affairs, tight, where one action can turn the result either way. Wednesday in the cup was a chance to be more expansive.

“You're going into it as an overdog, which, in MLS, there aren’t many you go into with that sort of feeling or that expectation,” explained John Herdman on Thursday. “So taking the responsibility for the performance last night, where they knew they had to score and there was an expectation to score lots of goals, was actually quite refreshing.”

“But the most important thing was people getting an opportunity, players that hadn't been able to contribute as much as they wanted to, to take those moments,” he continued. “It brings a new energy to the group – the group feels more connected – so you bring that into this match against Orlando. People are upbeat, they're feeling strong and together, and we're going to need that in what will be a tough place to get a result.”

Saturday will mark a key signpost on the journey.

The tenth game of the MLS campaign, it heralds the close of what Herdman has called Phase Three. Phase One was the physical preparation at the start of preseason in Florida, Phase Two saw the emphasis shift to a tactical focus in California with key tests against MLS competition in the lead up to the season.

Phase Four will be about navigating the flurry of matches over the next two-and-a-half months before the league pauses for the 2024 Leagues Cup.

“Phase Three was 'Start Strong,'” captioned Herdman.

“Be within touching distance of the top four – that was our mission from a points perspective.”

“It ended up becoming adapt and overcome very quickly with the way things turned out,” he summarized. “[Initially it felt] like you were walking into the new season with a lot of cohesion with your core group and you knew you would build more through the first few games, but the reality is just you've got to adapt. The best-laid plans are going to be ripped up pretty quickly.”

“The key was to stay within touching distance,” Herdman added. “The overachievement for us was to land in the top four, so this weekend is an important game. A win puts us very close to the overachievement goal and with a result it puts us right where the team was expecting to be and where we wanted it to be in our 'Start Strong' phase.”

Every player will be needed in the coming weeks and months. That Voyageurs Cup outing may well prove to be more valuable than one could imagine.

“We have certain targets that we set at the beginning of the season and, to be honest, we're pretty close to that,” laid out Aimé Mabika, one of the players who started on Wednesday. “So for us, it's about reaching that target and then, as we get into the busy period, the coaches have spoke about how everyone will be needed.”

“When we've been only playing one game a week, it's been sort of the same lineup,” he continued. “So as we get into a busy period, the whole team, everyone, is tuned in, ready to step up whenever needed. As we start playing Wednesday-Saturday everyone will be needed. We'll be prepared.”

When the games come at a leisurely place, it’s easy to read too much into a single result. This week a side are world-beaters, the next a flash in the pan. Such overreaction is for the outside.

As the intensity ramps up, it becomes less about any single game and about the larger trends.

Inside it all comes down to one simple thing.

“Just trying to stay consistent,” focused Mabika.

“Not letting the highs get too high and not letting the lows get too low.”

“Obviously, you want to win every single game, but we understand that in a 34-game season, there's going to be rough patches,” he continued. “It's just staying consistent in our process. staying consistent in our culture, and we were able to do that in those weeks where things aren't going your way and you're not picking up the points that you want to.”

“The Charlotte performance was one of the better performances of the season,” Mabika highlighted. “Obviously, you don't get the result. Coming back home [against New England] it was important for us to get back on track, win those three points, and then last night [against Simcoe County] to stay alive and advance in this competition is big for us. The vibe is good after two wins, but we stick to our process after wins, draws, or losses.”

In Orlando, Toronto will face a stiff challenge.

After a slow start navigating the dual requirements of league matches and the Concacaf Champions Cup, Óscar Pareja’s side was slow out the gates, winless in their first four.

Since then getting knocked out by Tigres UANL in the Round of 16, Orlando’s league performances have turned: the Lions are unbeaten in four matches with wins over Austin FC and D.C. United and draws against the New York Red Bulls and, most recently, CF Montreal.

The two played to a 2-2 draw at Stade Saputo last Saturday.

“The return of the key players and the match schedule becoming lighter,” pinpointed Herdman as the change of fortunes for Orlando. “With any team, when they get that week to breathe and reset and come back to some of their habits tactically, it makes a big difference.”

“One of the biggest changes I've seen is key players have came back into the starting lineup, so they're starting to get consistency in their core,” he continued. “And when you get consistency in your core, you know at home, with the fans behind you, you've got a big opportunity to put on consistent performances.”

“This is a tough test for us,” Herdman added. “Our last win there was 2019. A good opportunity, but a tough test.”

Orlando have dominated the head-to-head in recent years. Unbeaten in eight, they have won the last three at rechristened INTER&CO Stadium. The last two have been 4-0 victories.

Mabika, formerly of Inter Miami CF, is no stranger to the challenge of going to Orlando in search of a result.

“At Miami, Orlando was a big rival for us,” he said. “It's definitely a hostile environment and the style that they play – they get in your face, the slow the game down, whether it’s foul or whatever it may be – it's not a team that's going to lay down no matter what.”

“And then obviously, the heat brings different challenges,”

“It’s not an easy place to play whatsoever.” Mabika added.

Thankfully, this game is being played in April and not July, so that temperature element will be less severe.

Duncan McGuire, who scored a brace on Decision Day last October, including a stunning individual effort, against Toronto, leads the side with three goals. A trio of players – Iván Angulo, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Martín Ojeda – are tied with two assists each.

“Consistency,” anticipated Herdman, asked of his expectations from this weekend’s opponent. “[They’ve] been playing against back-five teams in Montreal and D.C. the last two matches, so [Oscar] is coming in with a very clear blueprint in how to operate. His team will be well versed in that.”

“And with the consistency he's bringing to his lineup, you’ll get the Oscar style of play, which is an expansive style,” he continued. “They're brilliant in the counterpress and at home they'll look to dominate the ball and pick you apart with their quality.”

“It'll be a tough match for us,” Herdman closed. “Defensively, if we can come back to where we were at in Cincinnati or New England with those resolute performances. It's going to be really important that that's the starting point for Toronto FC.”