Toronto FC

Toronto FC turn focus to Leagues Cup, ramping up for showdown in NYC: "The aim is to win"

Toronto FC makes their entrance into the reformatted Leagues Cup on Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey against NYCFC.

Pitting all 29 MLS teams against the 18 teams from Liga MX in a World Cup-style tournament offers TFC a fresh start.

Just 15 matches and three match days in the competition has already provided its fair share of drama: Leo Messi’s debut and game-winning free-kick for Inter Miami CF, six shootouts – including a wild one between Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Club Leon, won 16-15 by the Mexican side, and plenty more.

“What a fantastic competition the Leagues Cup has been – Messi’s debut on Friday was class,” said Terry Dunfield on Tuesday morning. “A cup competition brings intensity and it's a nice change from the league.”

“The Leagues Cup, not only to us, but to everybody in it, has brought excitement, has brought freshness,” he added. “I expect our guys to be bouncing out of the tunnel on Wednesday night.”

Toronto has had ten days to prepare since losing 1-0 to the Chicago Fire on July 15.

“Training has been great,” said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. “Guys have put in a lot work, a lot of effort, understanding the importance of a new competition. A clean slate, every team on a level playing field, an opportunity to go out there and win a trophy.”

“Everybody's done a good job of mentally and physically preparing for the challenge ahead,” he continued. “Looking forward to the match tomorrow.”

A long break in the middle of a campaign, to rest and recharge, but also to get on the training pitch and work through some things, especially with a new voice at the helm, is invaluable.

“It's super important to re-calibrate, get back and work on things,” underlined Johnson, himself just back from the Concacaf Gold Cup. “You have a locker room full of guys that are eager to get over the hump and eager to get that win that's been elusive. Nothing better than a ton of training, a ton of time to prepare and get ready to go again. Tomorrow is an opportunity to tie all those days together.”

Terry Dunfield and company have been busy.

“There has been some work on our strategy, building on some of the foundations that we've built over the last four games – consistency is important,” he outlined. “But there's also been some work going into our culture as well.”

“The first three/four weeks with players away, injuries, coming and going, it's been really difficult to live in the culture, which really underpins our strategy, our goals and purpose. We've been very deliberate, which will hopefully build a little bit of resiliency.”

Asked to expand, Dunfield explained: “Culture is your high performance behaviours that support your strategy. [They] go together. [Management theoretician Peter] Drucker has a saying, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ but without a strategy how can you have culture?”

“The time is right to start to scaffold in the behaviours that we're looking for,” he continued. “We're beginning to lean on our veterans, formed a leadership group to go, “Okay, these are non-negotiables; this is the code of the shirt that we're going to live every day for us to be successful.’”

Johnson summarized some of those principles succinctly: “To drive things in the right direction. To be forward looking. To do the right things as a group. Results.”

“There's so many more things that go into that: being cohesive as a team, individuals coming together as one, and ultimately having that standard,” he listed. “Understanding where this club was, getting back to that point is going to take all hands on deck. It's going to take a great culture within the group. There's been a big commitment to that. That's got to be our base moving forward: if we're going to do things, we do it together.”

The objective is clear: advance from the group and see where the knockout stage takes them.

“It won't be easy, we're playing against two sides that will have similar missions I'm sure,” said Dunfield. “What's important is that we take some of our performances over the last four games, bring this into Red Bull Arena, and just continue to grow.”

Johnson was even more direct: “The aim is to win.”

“There can't be any other. We sell ourselves short if our expectations are anything less,” he continued. “Stepping out to every game, putting our best foot forward to win games and to win competitions, to win trophies. It's another opportunity. No matter what's happened up until this point, we sell ourselves short if there's any other expectations.”

TFC will host Atlas at BMO Field this Sunday in their second group stage match, but up first is the midweek clash with NYCFC.

The home side lost the group opener 1-0 to Atlas last Sunday at Citi Field in Queens, NY, midfielder Aldo Rocha hitting a Luis Reyes corner kick on the volley at the back-post, squeezing it past Luis Barraza in the 7th minute.

They will be fighting to not be eliminated against TFC.

“NYCFC were a little bit unlucky on Sunday night,” said Dunfield. “They're a little bit of a wounded animal right now.”

“Tactically, New York are pretty expansive, they stretch right across the five channels, they're very comfortable in possession,” he highlighted. “Atlas did a good job of condensing the space between lines by sitting a little bit deeper and it opened up some space in transition.”

“There's flexibility within how [NYCFC] play, there's nice chemistry amongst their players, they've got weapons that can hurt us for sure, but we have some quality in the changing room too,” Dunfield balanced. “Finding the sweet spot of respecting the threats of NYCFC, but also looking at some of the opportunities that will present themselves is important.”

Wednesday will mark the first return to his old stomping grounds, sort of, for Johnson, who joined TFC from NYCFC in the off-season. This match will be played at Red Bull Arena rather than Yankee Stadium or Citi Field.

“It's always good to be back, be in opposition against my old team and see familiar faces, but when the whistle blows it's our team versus theirs,” he levelled. “The excitement lies in the opportunity and the competition for our group. There’s nothing more motivating than to have a chance to lift a trophy. And it starts with the game tomorrow, that's really the sole focus.”

“We have an important match tomorrow against a team that needs to win. We understand that,” added Johnson. “A super talented group, talented attacking pieces, they gave Atlas a really good game – a bit unfortunate at the end, they had some good chances. We know that they're a team that possesses quality, but we have to look at what we're going to need to do to go out and achieve that result tomorrow.”