The Reds are back on the pitch Wednesday night when they travel to Nissan Stadium in Tennessee for a clash with Nashville SC.
Regardless of how Saturday’s match against Orlando City SC played out, this one was always going to be circled on the calendar: Nashville knocked Toronto out of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs in the first round last season, bringing to a premature end a strange season that saw TFC overcome obstacle after obstacle.
For the team itself this is an important game. Not for that reason, however, this is just the next game – another chance at putting principle to practice and another chance at three points.
“The talk of last year, playoffs, that has not come up at all,” said Chris Armas during Tuesday’s conference call. “The only thing that [did] is in the past when you played them, they foul a lot.”
“They're a combative team, they are organized, they’re a team that's hard to play against. They get behind the ball and they can defend in a tight structure and they defend their goal very well. We know that part about their team,” he continued. “And we know that because of that it sets up transition moments. Whether it's [CJ] Sapong or [Randall] Leal or Alex Muyl, on the break, they get up the field and they overload central areas and become dangerous on crosses.”
“Overloads centrally in transition with [former Red Dan] Lovitz or fullbacks getting forward, they can hurt you. There is a lot to their team, maybe more than most realize,” Armas added. “We have a lot of respect for that team – it's a hard team to beat, so we'll have our plan.”
Last season was last season.
“Personally, I've moved on – I don't even think about what happened last year in the playoffs. So many things have changed and times are different,” levelled Omar Gonzalez. “We're coming at this game like we need these points.”
“Some guys may be fuelled by [last year]; for me, we need this win and this away win could be huge for us: it could jump-start some things, give us some confidence moving forward,” he added. “We need to start moving up the standings. If guys need to look back to last year when they kicked us out of the playoffs, so be it, but it doesn't matter. We're hungry, we're coming at them, and it should be a good night of football.”
Nashville enter the match off the back of their first loss of the season, falling 2-0 away to the New York Red Bulls on Friday.
Much like last season, Gary Smith’s side has thrived on being solid defensively and being hard to beat – as five draws and two wins in their first seven matches attests – but with attacking threats like Hany Mukhtar, who leads the side with three goals, Jhonder Cadiz, Leal, Sapong, and Muyl, Toronto will be asked questions.
“They like to counter press a little bit and put a lot of pressure on you in the middle of the field,” explained Gonzalez. “And they aren't afraid to go in behind, so as a back-line, we need to close the gap as much as possible while still keeping an eye on them trying to get behind us. That's going to be a big thing for us.”
“And also they're a team that is good with the ball out wide – they've got a lot of goals off crosses, so we’ve got to be wary on that,” he continued. “At the end of the day, we have to focus on us. Nashville are very good team. They're going to be at home. We know what they're about. For us it's about showing up the right way, doing what's necessary – no matter what, and showing a good character by playing good football. Doing whatever is necessary to get three points on the road would be huge for us. It's going to be a good game and we're looking forward to it.”
Eight games in, 15 goals against, a single win, and five points. Toronto are not happy with how the season has played out thus far.
But as Saturday’s toe-to-toe tilt with Orlando, a team that sits in the top three in the league following their 5-0 thrashing of the San Jose Earthquakes on Tuesday, Toronto can run with anybody.
“Those stats aren't great,” admitted Gonzalez. “I look at how many shots we've given up and how many of those are going in. I don't think we give away very many opportunities, but the opportunities that we do give up are happening to go in. That's frustrating.”
“Big chunks of the game we play well and we defend well, it comes down to just doing what's needed,” he continued. “Sometimes that's just kicking the ball out, sometimes it's giving the team some relief, getting it into the other side of the field, let the other team make mistakes. We keep on hurting ourselves, but we know who we are, we know that we have the team that's capable of getting it right and capable of going far this season.”
“We aren't counting ourselves out and I don't think anybody should,” Gonzalez added. “We're just still figuring it out and finally have a healthy group, which is great. Obviously, we're still missing some guys, but there's a lot of good things to build off of and so we're going to be looking at that.”
Though results haven’t followed, the growth from the first three matches to the more recent performances is there.
“I can see what we're trying to become as a team and what we're trying to accomplish with and without the ball. I can see it happening for large stretches of the game and, more importantly, the players can see that,” said Armas. “Then it becomes something real – not just a coach on a tactic board, talking about theory. If we're trying to create chances and penetrate down the field and all those terms, but then you put it to use and you create chances and you're getting in the box and you're getting lots of little actions and scoring goals, that carries the most weight.”
“And then defensively, you play against good players and good teams and they're also trying to try to do the same to you and you can deal with lots of those things, that does give us all some inner confidence here,” he continued. “The reality is that we are conceding some goals in different ways and lapses of concentration or whatever you want to say, but it's all correctable.”
“When we put it together, we become really, really hard to play against and really hard to beat,” Armas added. “There's work to do and we put it to the test in [Nashville].”