With the international break over Toronto FC is set to resume the MLS regular season this weekend with the latest instalment of the temporary derby.
TFC will meet Orlando City SC on Saturday night at Exploria Stadium, their shared home ground for the time being.
Oscar Pareja’s side took the victory in the previous meeting, winning 1-0 on May 22 via a goal from Tesho Akindele, but this is nominally Toronto’s home game and they are yet to be defeated in a ‘home’ match at Exploria.
“We have a lot of respect for them and what Oscar, the coach, has done in a relatively short time,” began Chris Armas during Friday’s prematch Zoom call. “From a culture to adding some pieces to creating a winning mentality to the way they play. They're a good opponent; for us, it's a good test.”
Orlando will likely look a bit different this time – Portuguese winger Nani was suspended for the last match and Daryl Dike, younger brother of former TFC striker Bright Dike, has only just returned from his dazzling loan at Barnsley FC in England – but so too will Toronto.
“We expect to see Nani in the lineup – we didn’t see him last time. Is Dike in, is he not? Ruan, the right back, is a big piece of how they operate – we expect to see him. A few different parts than last time, but it's our home game – in their building, which is always interesting,” outlined Armas. “They're a team that's organized, they don't give up a ton of chances, and they're able to hurt you in possession and transition. Last time we were able to impose ourselves in many ways, made a good push in that match, didn't give up a whole lot, but we're left with not taking any points.”
“Much of tomorrow is about TFC,” he added. “Can we execute? And put that performance together where it adds up to three points? A whatever-it-takes type of mentality.”
TFC came very close to finding what it took in the first clash after falling behind early: Jacob Shaffelburg had one attempt cleared off the line and another go agonizingly wide, while Yeferson Soteldo stung the palms of Pedro Gallese in virtually the final action of the match.
As early season matches go it was intense. Expect more of the same this time around.
“It’s a good team with a good coach that has them playing really well,” echoed Jonathan Osorio, fresh off international success with Canada, who qualified for the third round of Concacaf World Cup Qualification and eagerly await this fall’s Octogon. “[They’re] a team with a lot of confidence and it shows in the standings.”
“We believe that we can beat this team and we're going to go with everything tomorrow,” he anticipated. “The break was good for us and now it's a chance to go back at it and start on a good foot. We know it’s a tough match and we’re up for that.”
For the first time all season the injury list for Toronto is relatively sparse.
Only Soteldo, Ifunanyachi Achara, and Julian Dunn – the latter two who have been overcoming long-term issues – are named.
“This is as healthy as we've been all year,” agreed Armas. “We've seen what that has meant: [in] training we've been able to push the envelope and get everyone on the same page; the quality.”
“We're close to normal here,” he continued. “We're healthy, we're looking forward to throwing that out there tomorrow and getting a few more guys back. It’s for sure been a positive.”
Toronto has seen a lot of key players miss time through the opening months of the season. The absence of Alejandro Pozuelo and his subsequent return against the Columbus Crew before the break was particularly noteworthy.
In his absence, TFC have scored eight goals in seven matches, each from a different scorer. While goals by committee is a useful asset, it’s not the same as having Pozuelo in the fold.
“It's important that we're not reliant on one player and that different players can step in and get on the scoreboard. It’s good to spread that out,” said Armas. “However you want to have that guy or two that you’re looking to.”
“Having Alejandro back is helpful because he's often part of goals. When we're scoring in training and when attacking plays are coming off, he's in and around that,” he explained. “He's also a guy that helps guys around him: Ayo Akinola becomes more dangerous with Alejandro out there, with Osorio out there. Having those guys out there takes a little pressure off Mark [Delgado] and Michael [Bradley] to make all the plays in the final third.”
Fit and with some dedicated time on the training pitch over the break, Armas is pleased with the continued evolution of the side, but he wants more goals.
“The chemistry is coming together,” he relayed. “Goals are the way to win. We're hoping that the work that we've done, the healthy bodies, the chemistry, that it all comes together quickly here.”
TFC will play five matches before MLS takes another break for the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup mid-July.
A midweek away trip to Nashville SC awaits, while next weekend’s home match against FC Cincinnati is followed by a pair of road matches – at D.C. United and the New England Revolution – before the tournament begins in three weeks.
A tidy little stretch to make up some ground in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s very important,” said Osorio of this upcoming series of matches. “Our goal is to get into the playoffs and to fight to be near the top – that's not out of reach, there's still a lot of season to play.”
It begins on Saturday against Orlando.
“We know this stretch is important, but we're going to take it game-by-game,” stressed the midfielder. “We have the quality and experience to take small steps and make a push, but it starts with the first game, of course. Tomorrow's game is our focus right now.”