TORONTO – While the new pitch at BMO Field settles in, Toronto FC hits the road for two straight away matches.
And that is just a small fraction of the task ahead.
Over the next two months, Toronto will play ten league matches. Seven of those games will be on the road; eight of them will be against Eastern Conference opposition.
“It's a great challenge,” said Greg Vanney. “Sometimes we come home, the bar is shifted a little where it's on us to make the game, it needs to look beautiful, we need to entertain in addition to just win the game.”
“The last couple seasons, we started on the road with this mentality of defend first, be hard to play against and give up nothing,” recalled Vanney. “The attacking side came along; the foundation was to defend. We have to get back to this concept, understanding and trusting that the attacking things will come out of our group because we do it well.”
Up first is a familiar foe: Columbus Crew SC.
The two sides met in the Eastern Conference Championship last season, where Toronto refused to concede a single goal over the 180 minutes of the tie and Jozy Altidore scored the only series winner at home in the second leg.
Columbus got a modicum of revenge on opening day with a 2-0 win at BMO Field, where Federico Higuain and Gyasi Zardes scored either side of half-time.
“They're a good team,” said Nick Hagglund, who returned from a long injury layoff last match. “They're organized; have a game plan every time they come out. Gyasi is going to be making darting runs to get into the box.”
“Our job is to limit service and watch those runs,” continued Hagglund. “A lot of communication, bumping runs, and making sure they don't find a rhythm. They're very much a rhythm team, a momentum team. Hopefully we can thwart that.”
Columbus look to be without the services of Higuain who picked up a red card against Sporting KC on Saturday. Though he has a penchant for scoring against Toronto, Crew SC will still be a tough opponent.
“They're very good with the ball,” cautioned Vanney. “They create moments of uncertainty. If they have time on the ball, they'll rotate guys into areas where you're trying to figure out who is dealing with whom.”
“While they do that, they still have a priority to play the ball forward, to get between lines, to get the ball to the end-line, to get wide guys involved,” explained Vanney. “Their spacing is good and their ideas are good. They're always a tough team to manage.”
And with Columbus riding a seven-match unbeaten run--including a shutout streak of some 495 minutes--which has seen them rise level with Atlanta United for the top of the East, this will be a hard-fought affair.
“They're a team that hasn't given up a ton of goals this year,” defender Eriq Zavaleta noted. “We're going to have to be diligent and precise about the chances we take. And on the other side of the ball, Gyasi has seen a resurgence this year, they've brought in some good players that have made their team better and more effective in front of goal.”
Last season this contest was billed as a battle of two of the better tactical minds in MLS: Vanney and his Columbus counterpart, Gregg Berhalter. In the past Vanney has likened these encounters to a chess match, though each is willing to dispense with flourish and just do what must be done.
“This year they've gotten a little more practical,” detailed Vanney. “At times, they'll just play Gyasi over distance, behind. If the opposition is pressing they'll play direct, which has led to them conceding less chances and goals. They've become a stingier team.”
In addition to Higuain's absence, Columbus will be without both captain Wil Trapp and starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who were called into the US Men's National Team for friendlies against Ireland and France. Toronto, on the other hand, will be welcoming back Alex Bono from his first international cap.
Not that that changes anything.
“Columbus are who they are. They've been that team since Gregg has been there,” said Vanney. “What Trapp does somebody else will fill in and do similar things, maybe not to the same level and with the exact image or clarity that he does. It doesn't change a lot for us, in terms of our approach. They're still going to be good at what they do.”
Added Zavaleta: “They're pretty regimented; Berhalter has a system. They've shown they have guys on the bench that can produce.”
“For any team to lose [that] calibre of players is a detriment, but they're still a good team that will pose problems, is at home and confident,” continued Zavaleta. “You can't win games if you don't score goals against them. They're a team that will feel confident they can keep us off the score sheet, but with the players we have, we believe that nobody can do that on a consistent basis. We'll go in to win the game.”
One player looking forward to the match in particular is Cincinnati, Ohio-native, Hagglund, who spent time in the Crew SC youth system before being drafted by TFC.
“It's always fun, I always have a bunch of fans there,” said Hagglund. “My parents usually come up, friends from my street that I grew up on.”
In MLS, the tradition is as the summer temperatures start to climb, the grind begins. This portion of the campaign isn't about pretty, it's about gutting through results.
“Any team that has the calibre we do wants to win in a certain way. We've done a lot of that over the course of a couple year,” said Zavaleta. “But this group understands, has gone through enough experiences to know that we can win in a multitude of ways, whether that is pretty, scoring a lot of goals or ugly, 1-0 shutout.”
“It's easy to say, 'Let's get back to that,' but it takes a lot from every guy in this room to accomplish that,” continued Zavaleta. “We believe we've got the mentality to get out of this slump, to get back to our winning ways because it's a team that has been through a lot together, has seen a lot of success. We believe that is something we can do.”