Toronto FC will be back on the pitch come Saturday night when they face NYCFC at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey as a long, hard season nears its end.
With five matches remaining and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference 14 points away, TFC have not yet been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. Regardless of that, wrinkle times like this come down to being a professional and seeing out the fixtures in the best way possible.
“It's not tough,” said Jonathan Osorio on Friday. “We're fortunate to have the jobs that we have, no matter how it's going. In life, things don't always go well and when things go bad is when you have to really show your character.”
“You have to stay professional, it's as simple as that,” he continued. “That doesn't mean that you're smiling every day and acting like things aren't the way they are. Acting professional is being there for your teammates, doing what's asked of you on the pitch, and doing things off the pitch that you need to do to be ready – it's not giving up on the team. Those little things should not be hard.”
This season has been anything but smooth sailing. That has weighed on the group.
“What is hard is the mentality to keep strong in games, always believing that we have a chance to win, or when things go wrong to stay strong mentally,” Osorio explained. “This year when we get a punch, we find it very hard to recover from that. Those things are normal, but coming into work, trying to get better every day, and sticking to the game plan, things like that are the bare minimum.”
The 4-0 defeat away to Inter Miami CF on Wednesday night was the latest in a series of disappointments.
“After any defeat like that it’s tough, but we went over video, we looked at things that we need to improve and things that were good,” assessed Osorio of the mood of the group. “The result doesn't tell the story of the game, we were doing well up until the goal. The team's looking forward to the next game now, to put in a good performance in what's going to be another tough game.”
Toronto has spent the days since in Miami before embarking back north to New York City. The change of scenery was welcome, but the all-too-familiar feeling post-match was not.
“It's definitely warm down here,” said interim head coach Terry Dunfield after training. “There were lots of friends and family around the team for the game on Wednesday night, that was a special occasion, but then there was some heaviness after the game.”
“It felt like Groundhog Day where within the 90 minutes there was a good performance for a long spell and then it got away from us,” he added. “We've been working hard since the game to clear the heaviness, live in our processes, and get ready for New York.”
Post-match Dunfield referenced that same ability to take a punch, the resolve and resilience to suffer a setback and not let heads drop, as a challenge for the group.
Toronto went toe-to-toe with Miami for most of the first half, as they did against Vancouver, as they did against Columbus, Montreal, Chicago, St. Louis, and Salt Lake since the coaching change, and against so many other opponents all season long, but in those key moments that decide games at either end of the pitch the side has come up short.
Saturday’s action against NYCFC is a fresh chance to put that right, but also a reminder of one of the tougher nights this season.
The two met in TFC’s opening fixture of the Leagues Cup on July 26 at Red Bull Arena and NYCFC handed Toronto a 5-0 defeat, their worst loss of 2023.
That result is fresh in the mind heading into this weekend’s fixture.
“You're playing for personal pride, that of the club as well, the crest, that's important,” reminded Dunfield. “We'll have provoked the players with putting that result right going into the game.”
July was a lifetime ago for TFC.
“A lot has happened since then,” noted Osorio. “We are not the same team as we were. This is going to be a new game, a new match, a different match. Yeah we can use it as motivation, we don't want that to happen again. We're looking to bounce back from a poor result in our last game, that’s more what we're more thinking about.”
TFC won the previous MLS meeting between the sides by a 1-0 scoreline in April with CJ Sapong scoring on his debut. NYCFC won the last clash in New York City 5-4. Games between these two have more often than not produced some goals.
The hosts come into the game in good spirits, fresh off a 2-0 home win over Orlando City SC on Wednesday night that extended their current unbeaten run to four matches. Nick Cushing’s side enter the weekend’s round of fixtures two points off the playoff line.
They will be eager to keep that going.
“It’s a team that's very hungry and playing with urgency because they're fighting to get into the playoffs,” said Osorio. “They’re coming off a good win the other day against one of the better teams in the conference, so we're facing a confident team. It will not be an easy game.”
“They're a good team, they’re organized, they have good ideas on the attack, so we have to be really solid defensively as a collective,” he highlighted. “And when we do get chances we need to score them.”
Brazilian midfielder Gabriel Pereira leads the side with six goals on the season, while Uruguayan Santiago Rodríguez has six assists. The addition of Mounsef Bakrar in the summer window has provided a spark, the Algerian forward has three goals in six appearances, all coming in the last four matches.
“We expect them to be a little bit more on the front foot than when we met them last time,” anticipated Dunfield. “We'll have to manage that early on, but when the game settles we should be able to play our football.”