TORONTO – The MLS Cup Champions returned to the scene of that December triumph on Monday morning, getting in a training session at BMO Field ahead of the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 series against the Colorado Rapids.
Toronto FC have a 2-0 aggregate lead after the chilly first leg in Colorado last Tuesday, courtesy goals from Jonathan Osorio and Sebastian Giovinco.
“We went to Colorado, in some pretty tough conditions, and set ourselves up in a good way,” said Greg Vanney on Monday. “We have a great appreciation that this isn't done yet; we have some work to do tomorrow.”
“Our approach is to be very professional, play the game smart; do what we do well,” stressed Vanney. “We're not here to sit back and protect it. We're going to play forward and try to win the game.”
With progression to the quarterfinals at stake, where they will meet the winners of the CS Herediano and Tigres UNAL series – tied 2-2 heading into the second leg in Mexico, Toronto aim to 'finish off the series' on Tuesday night.
Despite the strong road performance, there is always room for improvement so early in the season.
“We've given ourselves a good advantage coming home. Now it's make sure we maintain that advantage,” said Vanney. “We need to get better. We look at each of these games as a reference point: things we need to work on, tighten up, improve. We'll look at the game against Colorado as an opportunity to get better and solidify our spot in the next round.”
Toronto will then face a quick turnaround as they welcome Columbus Crew SC to BMO Field on Saturday for the first match of the 2018 MLS season.
“Over the course of these games we'll get different guys opportunities and see where we're at,” said Vanney. “But at the same time, we're playing this one game at a time, trying to get a result in each.”
It is always dangerous to look past the next opponent.
Were it not for a stunning save from Alex Bono in the early stages of the first leg, Tuesday night's match may have taken on an entirely different complexion.
“They've got some talented players, caused us some trouble,” said Bono on Friday. “We know this is far from over; that we have to go in and play as if it is 0-0 to start the game. For us, it's important to start on the front foot, start fast, and match their intensity, because we know they are going to come out firing.”
True, having conceded two goals in the first encounter, Colorado are facing an uphill battle, but they will not go quietly. As Dominque Badji's 76th minute equalizer at BMO Field last July showed, a goal that salvaged a point in a 1-1 draw despite Toronto's fast start and dominant play, the Rapids are up for a challenge.
“They are a difficult team to play against,” cautioned Vanney. “They're physical, competitive, direct. Big guys up top looking to compete for every ball; midfielders who work hard. There isn't any team you can take for granted; on any day, they can find their way.”
“It is incumbent on us to make the day difficult for them,” reminded Vanney. “They're going to come out and compete; they have nothing to lose. They're going to put it all out there. Our job to turn tide in the other direction, score a couple goals, and put this thing away.”
Toronto has some potential reinforcements at their disposal. Chris Mavinga, who missed the first leg, is fit again, while Gregory van der Wiel is available following the birth of his first child on Saturday night.
So too is recent signing Ager Aketxe, whose ITC has arrived in time to feature Tuesday should Vanney call his number.
“Physically he''s ready to go,” said Vanney of the Spanish midfielder. “He's a smart player, so tactically he's understanding quickly what we're doing; technically, very clean.”
“In these coming matches, we will want to get him integrated and start looking at how he'll play, how many minutes, and how often; how he'll ultimately fit in long term,” explained Vanney. “He's a quality player; everything we thought.”
It has been a little more than two-and-a-half months since that December night that saw TFC lift the MLS Cup at BMO Field. The first home game of the season will bring those memories flooding back, as well it should.
But the team refuses to be distracted by past glory.
“That's gone now,” said Bono. “We've had an entire offseason to enjoy that.”
“We've done a good job of keeping that behind us, knowing that that season is in the books, and this season is what is upcoming,” continued Bono. “It's our job to write the story of 2018. We had a good start on Tuesday; we're looking to write a similar story as 2017.”