Toronto FC

Toronto FC gear up for away clash at Audi Field: "Bring on D.C.”


The first portion of the annual MLS summer grind comes to an end on Saturday evening when Toronto FC squares off against D.C. United at Audi Field.

May has been wild.

TFC beat FC Dallas, navigated a tricky away leg in the Canadian Championship at CS Saint-Laurent, lost at home to NYCFC and away to Nashville SC, overpowered CF Montréal at BMO Field, emphatically progressed to the semifinals of the Voyageurs Cup, lost in a seven-goal thriller against FC Cincinnati, and managed a clean-sheet away to the Philadelphia Union.

With a two week pause on the other side of D.C. Leg One of Phase Four is nearly done.

“I've loved it,” said John Herdman on Friday of the marathon. “To be honest, the players have enjoyed it, the staff have loved it.”

“There is a fatigue element to it, there's no doubt, but we've got some good processes, things we do in the hotels,” he continued. “We book ballrooms, recreate football pitches to do some of our tactical work.”

Herdman is no stranger to navigating tight turnarounds with his international tournament expertise.

“It reminds us of those World Cup experiences,” compared the coach. “It's been amazing – it'll be even more amazing if we get a result here in D.C. It's a tough place to come, but the guys, coming off the Philly game, are excited. They know the clean-sheet adds a little bit of steel to the group. Bring on D.C.”

Every member of the squad has been called upon to play their role.

“In a span of time like now, we've had so many guys step up, had guys that were both physically and mentally prepared for the gruelling stretch, we’re just leaning on each other,” explained Sean Johnson, fresh off another career milestone. “It's not one that's felt quite as chaotic and compact as a lot in the past have felt.”

“It's a testament to this group, the camaraderie we’ve built,” he added.

“And also the commitment from everybody to physically prepare themselves for stretches like this.”

When play resumes on June 15 against the Chicago Fire, one of Johnson’s former clubs, it will be just as hectic.

Another nine match MLS spell split into a trio of triple game weeks separated by Saturday-to-Saturday breaks leads into the Leagues Cup at the end of July. Throw in the opening leg of Toronto’s Canadian Championship semifinal series against Forge FC between the second and third triplet and more of the same awaits.

The players will get a well-deserved break before embarking on Leg Two of Phase Four.

“We’re going to shut it down for a period,” outlined Herdman. “There's some internal analysis that will go on, a review of this phase and getting as far ahead as we can on some of the prep for when the players come back.”

“We've agreed that they would take a good five days, just reset/recover with family and breathe,” he explained. “This month has been a busy one, so just to let them emotionally reset, come back in ready to go again and excited to compete. It’s heavy again in June.”

For a handful of players – Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea (both Canada), Johnson (USA), Deybi Flores (Honduras), Derrick Etienne Jr. (Haiti), and possibly Tyrese Spicer (Trinidad and Tobago) – the week after D.C. will be spent on international duty.

Spicer was named to the provisional roster for the Soca Warriors.

“I wish these boys all the best as they go off in different directions,” said Herdman. “Now I'm on the other side, just hoping they will come back healthy.”

“I used to always hope they were coming in healthy, playing that last match for club,” he flipped. “I wish them all well.”

Toronto head to the American capital buoyed by a professional road performance at Philadelphia midweek.

The resulting 0-0 draw was TFC’s first clean-sheet since the end of April and Herdman felt the side found the balance between keeping it tight at the back and creating enough chances to win on the day.

Johnson agreed.

“We’re a team that takes pride in the way we defend, takes pride in the way we go forward,” he began. “We're a team that can, on different days, exhibit different things.”

“We're pretty confident in our abilities as a group. We've gotten better every single game, we've challenged ourselves, we have been pushed, we’ve had the targets that we set, and ultimately, every game we've done everything that we said we're going to do,” Johnson continued. “For me, it's just continuing to build and it was important for us, going into Philly, We wanted to get back to the identity, make sure that we were solid. We did a decent job to go in there and get a clean-sheet. We were unlucky not to win it.”

Wednesday was the 100th MLS regular season shutout for the veteran goalkeeper, vaulting him into an exclusive club in the league’s history.

The first came in August 2010, his rookie season with the Fire.

A 21-year-old Johnson kept a clean-sheet against a New York Red Bulls side that contained Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Ángel, and Rafa Marquez in a scoreless draw.

“It's been so many games, a lot of moments,” he replied, asked about the journey from then to now. “I don't really think about records or the accolades that have come in the past weeks or months. This group has been an important part of that, without them it wouldn't be possible to achieve those things and continue on knocking out those milestones.”

“If I can tell my 21-year-old self anything, it would just be to enjoy the process, which I have – I’ve enjoyed every moment – and just to be the present,” continued Johnson on his birthday. “Now it's Year 15, but there's so many different moments along the way, so many different experiences, tournaments, championships; good seasons, bad seasons, all the in-between, but just to enjoy every moment and continue stacking the experiences because that’s what made me the player I am today.”

Toronto will be aiming to make it a 101st on Saturday, but face a stiff challenge in Christian Benteke and D.C. United.

Troy Lesesne’s side are winless in four and coming off a 4-2 defeat at Montréal midweek – Benteke scored both goals to bring his season tally to 13.

“They have a really threatening right side with [Aaron] Herrera and Benteke, that combination is working very well for them,” assessed Herdman. “[Herrera’s] delivery is quality and Benteke’s timing and, ultimately, his goal-scoring ability speaks for itself.”

“As I've said to the players there are things you can do tactically – you can stop crosses, we can get proximity to Herrera, we can adjust our lineup slightly to try and manage Benteke – but when quality meets quality, there's not much you can do,” he continued. “If there's a quality cross with his quality movement, the quality of player he is in the right areas, more often than not he's going to score.”

“That puts pressure on us to score, to be aggressive, and to take a front foot,” Herdman urged. “We've done the analysis, we've looked at things we can do to try and nullify that, but recognizing he’s in great form and he'll be difficult to contain we have to get on the front foot against D.C, ready to risk a bit to put the ball in the back of the net in an away game.”

Herrera has six helpers on the season, bettered only by Jared Stroud’s eight and Mateusz Klich’s seven for United.

“[Benteke’s] a player of quality. He’s brought a lot of quality for that team, both on the offensive end and just being an outlet as well,” added Johnson. “We're aware.”

“We can replicate the things that we built on last game, continue those into this game, and ultimately just making sure that we stick to our principles and continue to consider what's allowed us to be a successful team,” he closed.

“That’s where our focus is.”