Toronto FC

Toronto FC prepare for final push in packed May schedule: "We'll go there to win" 


Toronto FC are in the final stretch of a gruelling month of football.

This May madness ends at D.C. United on June 1 when TFC close out a nine-game run that began on May 4. Up first is a midweek match away to the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night.

It’s been a testing spell.

Lost somewhat in the sheer volume games has been the quality of the opposition. NYCFC sit third in the Eastern Conference, FC Cincinnati are second. Philadelphia, Nashville SC, FC Dallas, and Orlando SC were all playoff sides last year and the derby against CF Montréal is its own beast entirely.

Toronto have outscored their MLS opponents 15-12 throughout, but despite scoring and conceding 10 in their last four outings, TFC have lost three of those contests.

The defensive aspect has been the focus of attention for John Herdman and his staff this week.

“We looked at that today,” he replied, quoted those figures. “It's not numbers because we seem to get good numbers in and around the ball. It tends to be some decision-making elements – players are assigned responsibilities – and we called it out in the meeting today.”

“We looked at the centimetres on the attacking side that might have made the difference, whether it was two centimetres under the bar, two centimetres not offside, a player running an extra three metres to be on the end of a cross in the 99th minute,” Herdman continued. “It's metres on the other side – one of the goals a player is three metres out of position – it's that level of concentration, that level of discipline that championship teams are able to bring to games.”

“Cincinnati conceded three goals, so I'm sure they'll be looking at their reality, Montréal we were stingy enough, but still give them one or two good opportunities,” he added.

“We have to close that gap. A real intense focus on the defensive phase, particularly in our defending quarter.”

All four of Cincinnati’s goals came from open play, but the last two when the game got hectic stood out.

“They were able to combine with less numbers than us,” outlined Herdman. “It comes down to concentration and positioning, knowing your job and delivering in high pressure moments where you stay concentrated for long periods of time.”

“That was the message today,” he continued. “Collectively, they recognize that and they're welcoming it. They know we're growing, they know we're on a journey. At the beginning of the season, we weren't slated to do much, but people were describing that as heavyweights trading punches.”

“It was a good compliment to the lads, but as I said to the players today, we got knocked out and that doesn't help us on our quest to achieve our goals,” Herdman levelled. “We've got to be able to evade those punches that top teams can muster up.”

Even in defeat Toronto learned something from going toe-to-toe with one of the top sides in the East.

“Of course you're taking confidence from this game,” said Nicksoen Gomis. “They one of the best teams in the league, but we're not happy with the result.”

“We deserved at least a point, but we’re a confident team,” he added. “We'll take the positive, move forward.”

Results have waxed and waned, but overall the side has been heading in the right direction.

“Accumulative xG has been interesting for us, we've been trending positively in that space and when you look at some of our internal markers – we have metrics that we know if we hit, you're going to be right there to winning games – our home performances have shown we're right there,” described Herdman. “It's sometimes in the hands of the football gods that a ball will bounce one way or another. We've been experiencing that, whether it was New York, a soft penalty in that game, or this game against Cincinnati where the width of a crossbar or the width of a shoulder on an offside. Those things do make a difference in the top levels.”

Centimetres and metres matter, on both sides of the ball.

“We're creating enough chances; we weren't happy with the opportunities we gave away, there's no doubt on that,” continued the coach. “Three goals against New York, four against Cincinnati, that's a trend that has to change.”

“There was some passion and emotion in the meeting today from myself, Jason deVos in that space, because we start the beginning of the season being hard to beat, then we've encouraged the players to be brave with our attacking style of play, pushing them out of their comfort zones, getting players into areas that they're really pushing new levels,” Herdman detailed. “But they're not transitional goals that we're conceding. Two of those goals were from build-up play where I expect my players to do better.”

“Mistakes happen across any team, but when Sean [Johnson] pulls off a big save and [the opponent] get to that ball first and we've got four players around that, we can't live with that,” he highlighted. “These are the little details that make a big difference. If we're going to push that next level, that's the gap we're closing.”

Toronto will head into these final two matches before a slight pause the fittest they have been since the start of the season.

Federico Bernardeschi is back from suspension, Lorenzo Insigne is sharp, coming off an excellent performance, Jonathan Osorio is back in the fold after missing a few matches, and Richie Laryea will travel with the team and may see minutes on the weekend at D.C. United.

It’s been a minute.

“I can't wait for everyone to be back,” said Gomis. “It's good for every player.”

“When everyone is available, it's going to push the level of training, everything,” he continued.

“It's good to have [competition] in the team. I can't wait for everyone to be back.”

It will be short-lived, however, as after D.C. international call-ups will begin. Osorio and Layrea were named to Canada’s squad for friendlies against the Netherlands and France, while Johnson will join the US group – they face Colombia and Brazil – as both prepare for Copa América, which kicks off next month.

“I'm proud for those lads,” said Herdman, asked about the duo included in new MLS Canada Men’s National Team Head Coach Jesse Marsch’s first squad. “I know what it means to them to represent their country.”

“Richie has had a tough run, so I'm pleased Jesse has put the trust in him. He's a guy who loves playing for Canada. He gives his everything,” he continued. “And I'd say the same for Osorio. I'm happy for them.”

Herdman knows better than anyone that these are the give and take of club-versus-country.

“It comes at a time for us in June where you'd love to have had that full squad available,” he added. “But having been the guy that took players away from clubs and not worried too much about it, being on the other end you've just got to pat these boys on the back and wish them all the best.”

When the dust settles late in the evening on June 1 Toronto will have reached the halfway point of the 2024 MLS regular season.

It’s been quite the journey so far; much more to come after a well-deserved rest.

Up next is the Philadelphia Union.

Jim Curtin’s side went unbeaten through the opening seven matches of the season, balancing both league and Concacaf Champions Cup duty. That evolved into a stretch of six winless, but the Union were in every one of those games, drawing two and never losing by more than a single goal in the others.

A 3-0 win away to the New England Revolution and a scoreless draw with Charlotte FC on Saturday have them coming into Wednesday’s clash unbeaten in two, having kept clean-sheets in both.

Attacking midfielder Daniel Gazdag leads the side with nine goals, forward Julián Carranza has chipped in with six, while all three of Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Kai Wagner have four assists apiece.

Lots of threats in this Philly side.

“In recent games, they've become quite stingy,” observed Herdman. “Defensively they've really brought a commitment and focus to their play. They’ve had some away games and been able to keep some clean-sheets, which isn't easy.”

“[Goalkeeper] Andre Blake was injured, that's a huge loss, they've been able to stabilize and get back to that championship track, keeping clean-sheets,” he continued. “We know they're going to be defensively tough, but when you're in their place they're one of the most aggressive teams in MLS.”

“They're going to be on the front foot, they're going to force you to be direct, they're going to be direct themselves in situations and rely on the real quality in Carranza and Gazdag. They're a tough team,” Herdman underlined. “They're a really tough team, but it'll be a good match up.”

“We need this type of game,” he anticipated. “We've been playing against teams that like to really dominate the ball and dominate the pitch, teams like New York and Cincinnati, but this team, for me, are very pragmatic, they can go front-to-back very quickly and make it a very physical game. We're getting ready for that and looking forward to it.”

The side playing at home has won the last four matches between the two and is unbeaten in eight stretching back to the 2019 season when each won on the other’s patch.

TFC aim to break that pattern.

”We'll go there to win – I don't see anything else,” said Gomis.

“We'll go there to win and pick up some points.”

“And it's the same for D.C. United,” he closed. “Two important games.”