TORONTO – The action continues thick and fast for Toronto FC as they hit the road this weekend for a third match in eight days.
TFC will face the New England Revolution on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Results over the three-game stretch have been mixed: a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union last Friday saw Toronto looking more their dominant selves, but the 2-1 midweek defeat at the hands of Seattle Sounders FC, their oft-MLS Cup Final rivals, will have stuck in the craw of a side eager to reassert their quality in a fiercely contested Eastern Conference.
The plague of injuries and the lingering effects of a busy start to the season are some of the factors, but so too is the fact that as defending champions, Toronto enter every match with a target on their back.
“Every team will have their plan, how they think they can get a result against us,” said Greg Vanney on Thursday. “That's what happens when you have a good team, a team that has won a championship, a team with the types of players that can score goals, create. What is important for us is to recognize what the game is going to look like and have our solutions.”
Should a team opt to defend, sit deep, and look to hit on the counter, as Seattle did on Wednesday, it is incumbent upon Toronto to force them out of that comfortable shell.
Vanney looks to last season for inspiration, where Toronto regularly faced the same tactic, especially at BMO Field.
“Last year, we got the first goal a lot,” explained Vanney. “When you score first, any team that wants to sit back [has to] change their approach. That's where we started to dominate games. When teams start to open themselves up a little, we did a good job of continuing to create chances, to get the second and third goal. Giving up the first goal [on Wednesday] reinforced this idea that [Seattle] could be really compact and deep.”
But scouting suggests New England, on their home turf, will take a different tact.
“From what I've seen they're a team that likes to be aggressive defensively,” said Vanney. “They're going to try to push their lines, try to step out; their back-line is not afraid to play high. It has the makings of a game that could look very different.”
Under the tutelage of Brad Friedel, who took over the head coaching position in the offseason, New England have maintained many of the attacking attributes that have made them dangerous in recent years: quick, athletic forwards; good use of width; quality in the middle of the park – though, the departure of Lee Nguyen has seen Diego Fagundez move centrally to take up that creative role.
But Friedel has emphasized a different approach on the other side of the ball.
“He's pushed them to be more aggressive in their set up and their approach defensively,” noted Vanney. “He likes his line being active and dynamic, squeezing space and closing things up.”
It will come down to who can take the initiative on the day.
“They can make the game difficult if it becomes clear from them,” continued Vanney. “If we can make some of these moments uncertain, they'll have a hard time figuring out how to press us and we can make them defend. But if they have a lot of the ball, they force you to make tough decisions defensively.”
On the injury front, there was some good news as Victor Vazquez, who was forced off at half-time against Seattle with a knock, is feeling better, according to Vanney. But whether he, or any of the other walking wounded are ready for Saturday will be a game-time decision, especially considering the unforgiving surface in Foxborough.
“It's always tough going there,” said Jonathan Osorio. “The pitch and everything... it's tough. It's a team that likes to play there as well; they're a different team at home.”
“We're going to have to come out with the proper intensity,” echoing his coach's sentiments. “We have to be more aggressive at the start, look for that first goal, so that teams open up.”
For their part, New England's attack will be looking to do the same.
“They have guys who stretch the game and stretch the field out,” cautioned Vanney. “They will run in behind, get into the space behind you. That creates the space for Fagundez, who is very dynamic underneath, in between lines, and is quick and shifty. He does a good job of making the first defender miss. What ends up happening is he forces help and it opens up other guys.”
Following the trip to New England, TFC return home to close out May with two further home matches against Orlando City SC and FC Dallas. After that comes the FIFA World Cup pause before the annual MLS summer grind begins in earnest.
Much football remains to be played and Toronto will face it, as Vanney is fond of saying, 'one game at a time.' This weekend, it is New England who are squarely in their sights.
Asked if the troublesome turf was an issue heading into the match, Osorio deadpanned: “It doesn't matter.”
“Obviously, those are factors, it's going to be difficult and they have an advantage,” continued Osorio. “Once we step on the field that all goes out the window and it's another game.”