TORONTO – Once more a familiar Eastern Conference opponent will bring an element of the unknown to the latest encounter.
When Toronto FC square off against Orlando City SC on Saturday night in Florida, James O'Connor will be taking charge of just his second match as head coach of the Lions.
“This is the second time in four games that we've done this: NYCFC was the same,” said Greg Vanney, referring to facing Domenec Torrent in his debut on June 24. “At least on this one James has one game under his belt with the team.”
O'Connor and Orlando lost 4-1 to LAFC in his managerial debut last weekend, extending their current losing streak to nine matches.
Though the man at the helm may be different, the threat Orlando poses remains similar.
“They're a team that has good players,” said Vanney. “Dangerous players that can make you pay if you make mistakes: Sacha [Kljestan] who can slip balls, [Dom] Dwyer has scored plenty of goals, some dribblers who can take you on. We have to be aware of those pieces.”
Dwyer leads the side with seven goals, Kljestan has four and an equal number of assists, while Yoshi Yotun, who returned last match from his World Cup exploits with Peru, has five assists and three goals to his name.
“They're going to be hungry,” foresaw Nick Hagglund, who is on the verge of his 100th appearance for TFC. “They've got a new coach, everybody is fighting for positions, fighting for a job. They're going to be together, organized, and have a lot of grit. They're going to try to find Kljestan; he's going to try to open up the game. That's who we have to watch.”
Orlando will, however, be missing an important piece with Uri Rosell suspended due to yellow card accumulation; former Reds Joe Bendik and Will Johnson are available, as is Toronto-native Richie Laryea.
Comforting against the unknown of a new manager, Toronto will be buoyed by recollections of the 2-1 win on May 18, the first of the two meetings this regular season.
Jay Chapman gave the home side a lead in the 63rd minute, only for Cristian Higuita to respond ten minutes later. Ryan Telfer would nab the game-winner in the 87th minute, his first goal in MLS, with a stunning volley at the back-post.
That victory extended Toronto's winning streak against Orlando to three matches. TFC are unbeaten in the last five clashes between the two and have won three of four all-time visits to Orlando, including the last two.
Sebastian Giovinco, in particular, has tended to enjoy these matches: scoring eight goals and adding six assists in seven appearances versus Orlando. Jozy Altidore too has relished playing in his home state, scoring six goals in as many games. On the other side of the ball, Dwyer has four goals in eight matches against TFC.
Like the home-and-home series against the Chicago Fire that lies ahead, and every match from here on, the stakes on Saturday are raised.
“This is a six-point game,” said Hagglund. “One loses three points; the other gains three. These next couple games are important games.”
With a win, Toronto could pull level with Orlando in the standings.
“Every game is important,” concurred Vanney. “With Orlando being one of those teams between us and the playoff spot, it makes it a little more interesting.”
With that in mind, Vanney's demand from his side is plain: “A good performance from minute one to minute ninety.”
“It's always difficult to play in Orlando in the summer, that presents its own challenges,” continued Vanney, who has seen his side battle sweltering conditions in the last four matches. “But we'll be ready, looking forward to getting back on the field again and getting going.”
The point last weekend from a 2-2 draw on the road against Sporting KC, a notoriously difficult place to play, marked the official beginning of the second half of the season. TFC are squarely focused on what they need to do.
“For us, it's less about our opposition and more about ourselves; progressing,” said Vanney. “Take the last series of games and try to move forward. It's building this platform of confidence and a clarity; build some continuity in our lineups and on the field.”
Added Fraser, who was named to the 2018 MLS Homegrown Game on Thursday, of the road point and the upcoming match: “It's a start. We're looking to push the envelope in Orlando, come away with three points, get ourselves going.”