Much can change in a month.
It was back on July 7 when Javier Perez took over the head coaching role for Toronto FC, winning 3-2 away to the New England Revolution before MLS paused for the Gold Cup break.
While technically last weekend’s 2-2 draw against NYCFC was the proper anniversary, it is neat that another match against the Revolution begins this next phase.
On Monday, following that dramatic second half come-back, it was announced that the ‘interim’ tag would be removed from Perez’s job title and he will see out at least the remainder of the 2021 season.
Asked about that change, Perez was plain: “It's not about me, right? This is about the team, how the team feels.”
“Giving stability to the team was very important in the games. Now we have stability knowing that we are going to be together to the end of the season and that gives us clarity in terms of how we face every game,” he continued. “We know that we have to go for three points every game, but at the same time we can plan.”
TFC and Perez went unbeaten through his first five games before a stumble in Philadelphia earlier this month. When it looked like that may be repeated against NYCFC, the team found a hitherto untapped reserve to earn their point.
“It's been an interesting month,” considered Perez. “We started with that victory in New England. We tried to settle defensively, which I think we did. We were due for a game that probably wasn't going to go on our way, which was Philadelphia.”
“I wish we had more positive results, meaning wins, but we have four ties. The performances are good, but we need to get wins,” he stressed. “Even if I look at the past I always look to the future and the future is we need to get three points.”
The difference from then to now is plain to see.
“The way we're playing we’re in a good spot for the rest of the games. We just have to take it one game at a time,” said Ifunanyachi Achara, back in the fold after a long injury layoff. “We have a game tomorrow and we want our three points: we get the three points and we focus on the next few away games coming up.”
“The month of August is important for every one of us and we know that, but the team is in a good place to make a run,” he continued. “We're playing well. We just need to keep a few clean-sheets, get some goals in and the points are going to start racking up.”
Continuing the recent trend, Saturday against New England kicks off the next triplet of games. It is followed by a pair of away trips: to Atlanta United on Wednesday and then Inter Miami CF on Saturday before the month closes away to CF Montreal on August 27.
Midway through a long season, this congestion is just another obstacle to be overcome.
“We saw last week how challenging it is,” noted Perez. “When you go to Philadelphia, you go thinking that you work well, you have a team settled, and then something is off because playing every three days is very difficult.”
“We need to find rotations, we need to find players that can help the team [by] giving resting time to the players that have [most of the] minutes. That's the way to approach it, that's the way we’ll try to solve this problem,” he highlighted. “The schedule is challenging, but it's challenging for everybody and the question is how we can manage better than the other teams to use that as an advantage for us, instead of a disadvantage.”
Perez has already found a few of those players that can help the team. Ralph Priso has stepped back in and Achara has been a breath of fresh air.
The 23-year-old forward returned to the pitch after nearly a year-and-a-half on the sidelines.
“It feels great to be back on the field playing with the guys. I put in a lot of work over the past 14 months so it's rewarding to see it come to fruition,” Achara explained. “It was difficult at first – being away, not just being injured, but also because the team last year were in the US playing.”
“It felt weird because all I did was rehab and I didn't get a chance to be around the guys and watch them at practice,” he added. “It was a strange time, but we pushed through it.”
His cameo against Philadelphia was a warm-up, but when he came on at half-time against NYCFC he made an instant impact.
“Javier talked to me about my energy, talked about my pace and the runs I make in behind and how I play differently from most guys. And how if I bring that in and we combine that with what Yeferson [Soteldo] brings and Poz [Alejandro Pozuelo] and every other guy on the team then we’ll be in a good spot,” relayed Achara. “His message has been to be patient, go on the field, bring the energy, bring the speed and see how we can change the game.”
Having scored the late game-winner in his debut against NYCFC in March 2020, it took just ten minutes to get his name on the scoresheet this time around, unselfishly squaring to Pozuelo for the equalizer.
“That's who I am and I think most players are like that too because it's a team sport and you want to win,” Achara explained. “I was in a good position and Poz was wide open and I wanted to make sure that we get a point and we get back into the game. It's also a message that the team comes first, which is the message around here.”
That win in Perez’s first game was a statement, a reminder, that this team has more to give. The second half against NYCFC was too.
They need to make many more to climb back up the standings and into a playoff spot, but with league-leading New England coming to BMO Field on Saturday it is another chance at laying down a marker against a familiar opponent.
“Every game is different, but having faced them once gives us a lot of information about what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses,” said Perez. “It’s a very direct team, a team that commits numbers forward, a team that puts players of size and physicality inside the box, and puts in crosses from the outside backs. It's going to be a very challenging game for us, but we are ready and we are going to make the most of the game.”
Led by MLS veteran Bruce Arena, New England have a ten-point lead at the top of the Eastern Conference and a six-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield race.
They enter the match unbeaten in six, most recently a 2-1 win over Philadelphia, stretching back to that last clash with TFC.
“I expect them to bring their best and to be tough,” forecast Achara. “They’re top of the league, but we're confident because we've played them before and we came out with three points. We’re not going to let our guard down, we're going to come out expecting them to be at their best. It’s going to be a really good game.”
New England will be without their playmaker Carles Gil and his league-leading 15 assists – double the next highest tally, due to a muscle injury, but they will still have one of the leagues’ leading goal-scorers in Gustavo Bou, tied with Raul Ruidiaz on 11 and Tajon Buchanan, the Canadian who rose in prominence following an exceptional series of performances at the Gold Cup.
“Bou is having a great season,” replied Perez. “He's a key player for them, he has scored eight goals in the last 10 games, almost one goal per game. And Buchanan is a great player.”
With Buchanan expected to be fielded more centrally in Gil’s absence, as he was against Philadelphia last weekend, the TFC coach called it a “token change.”
“Gil played [when we played them] in New England, he was, alongside Bou, the most dangerous player in the team and they’ll change player for player almost – Buchanan for Gil,” he expanded. “Gil is more a player that starts wide, comes inside. Buchanan is the other way – starts in the middle, goes wide.”
“All in all it’s going to be a very similar side to the one we faced in New England and these players are on great form,” Perez added. “We are going to have to show our best soccer.”