TORONTO – With league play set to resume after the World Cup break, the defending MLS Cup champions are eager to re-assert their 2017 dominance on the rest of the Eastern Conference.
As the annual summer grind begins, Toronto FC find themselves in an unfamiliar position, sitting in 10th place in the conference standings after 14 matches, four points out of the sixth and final playoff berth on their side of the bracket.
Wild comebacks (in either direction) aside, the last three matches before the pause saw elements of 2017 TFC return: unbeaten through the stretch, scoring 10 goals and imposing themselves on the road in Columbus and Philadelphia.
The side is slowly getting healthy – one can count the absences on one hand for the first time in months – and are ready to approach this next phase of the campaign with renewed vigor.
It begins with a pair of games against the New York sides on successive Sundays: at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC this week (5 pm ET | TSN 4/5, ESPN+ - Full TV and streaming info) and at BMO Field against the Red Bulls the next – the latter a rematch of the contentious Eastern Conference Semifinals clash in last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs that featured the “brouhaha at BMO” in the stadium’s Tunnel Club.
“Yes, they're good games,” said Reds coach Greg Vanney on Tuesday. “Our team should and will understand the importance; the quality of the opposition. We know that we've got to be locked in, be respectful of the decisions and the approach to each of these games.
“The games in New York City always make for interesting moments when we're there,” he continued, recalling the goalfests of years past. “You have to be prepared for everything. And the Red Bulls, with what has been their traditional style, coming off a break, I imagine they recharged a little.”
Aside from the two meetings with Columbus Crew SC, it will be the first time TFC have squared off with any of the other three teams with a near-stranglehold on the top four spots in the East.
A run of road matches through July will test their mettle, ending with a home-and-away against the Chicago Fire ahead of the MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 1, all leading into a clash with Atlanta United FC at Mercedes Benz Stadium to kick off August.
“It's fun,” said defender Eriq Zavaleta. “Nobody is looking at these games like, 'Oh crap, we have to play two teams that are good, are higher on the leaderboard.' These are games that our players get up for.
“It doesn't matter who we play right now, we have to win games if we want to get ourselves into the position that we're going to,” continued Zavaleta. “Over the past 36 months or so, we've won anywhere; we've won in different ways: at home, away; we've won big, we've won small; we've won ugly, we've won pretty. We don't care how it gets done; just care that we get it done.”
The 20 games that remain will define the 2018 season for TFC.
It has been an odd one: the remarkable Concacaf Champions League run twinned with the struggles in MLS play. Regardless, the Reds’ confidence has not been diminished.
“For sure,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono, who signed a contract extension this week, when asked if the two matches against New York opponents are a chance to make a statement. “Through the past couple years they've been two competitive teams, towards the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference. We believe that we belong in those areas as well. Making sure that we get points and they don't [would be] a confidence boost going forward; a jump in our path back to being one of the top teams.
“In no way do we think that those teams are out of reach, that we're not good enough to play with them. That's ridiculous from our perspective,” added Bono. “We know our capabilities, our style, our guys, so trying to take points away from them is top of our list right now.”