TORONTO – When it comes to a regular season match in MLS, they don't get much bigger than this.
When Toronto FC faces off against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, much will be at stake. Aside from bragging rights, there are a massive three points on offer that could prove crucial to either side's aim in the Eastern Conference.
For their part, Atlanta are looking to hold off the challenges of the two New York clubs in their quest for the Supporters' Shield; Toronto, meanwhile, are looking to continue the form that has seen them move to within sight of the dividing line.
“We're looking forward to it,” said Greg Vanney. “A very good opponent; big environment. These big games are important. It's one that everyone looks forward to. Preparation, mentality, attention to detail, everything has been good.”
One word hung in the air around training all week.
“We're very excited,” smiled Michael Bradley. “For a lot of reasons.”
“At this point of the season, every game is huge. We feel good about the last few weeks, feel like we're starting to build a little bit of momentum. And any time you go to Atlanta and play, it's always fun, always exciting,” listed Bradley. “Good team, big stadium, big crowd; we're really looking forward to it.”
Added Jozy Altidore: “The guys are looking forward to a game like this.”
“The whole back-end of last year and beginning of this, we played so many games that [each meant] something,” continued Altidore. “This will be nice: to play a game, in a good atmosphere, where it means a lot. Everybody is excited; raring to go.”
This current unbeaten run of four matches began back on July 18 with a 1-0 away victory in the opening leg of the Canadian Championship semifinals over Ottawa Fury FC. Since then, TFC beat the Chicago Fire home and away and closed out the series against Ottawa in style.
“That win in Ottawa, it really got the team going,” said Jonathan Osorio. “We feel like ourselves again. Four wins are great; we have a really tough match on Saturday. It comes at a great time, it's going to show us where we're at. We're really excited for it.”
Standing in their way are the current leaders of the East, Atlanta United FC.
“It's a dangerous team,” cautioned Altidore. “They like to run, like to counter; have some quick players. You have to be careful. When they have space in front them, they're very dangerous.”
Extra attention will need to be paid to Josef Martinez, who with 24 goals through 23 games – on pace to set a new record for most in a campaign – accounts for a full half of Atlanta's output.
“He's shown that he is a player that will do anything to score a goal,” assessed Vanney. “He's brave, single-minded in his running and endeavour to get to good spots. He's a great athlete jumping-wise, good timing, powerful.”
“He's not concerned about the build-up, he's solely interested in the final pass, getting on the end of it,” added Vanney. “His awareness of where he is and where he needs to get to, his anticipation in front of goal is as good as anyone.”
Saturday's match will have a familiar feel. It heralds the beginning of the final three months of the 2018 regular season. Then looms the second season.
“Whenever you start to get to August, September, what is behind you starts to feel long behind and what is in front of you is all the exciting stuff,” said Vanney. “We're starting to get into that, given our position in the standings, that's probably coming a few weeks earlier than it might otherwise. Usually, we talk about 'when the weather turns,' that's when you know it's almost playoff time.”
Big games always have that added weight and attention, according to Vanney: “Whenever we play the Atlanta's, the New York City's, the Red Bulls, teams we've seen are good, have a great style, and are difficult to play against. It always gets our utmost attention.”
Regularly this season, teams have approached matches against TFC with a tailored game-plan. It will be nice to encounter one that will not look to alter who they are.
“They're an attacking team first and a defending team second,” summed up Vanney. “I don't suspect that they'll sit deep in their half and force us to break them down. They're going to play to their strengths, look for ways to open up the game where they can. You've got to be able to manage that.”
“They're not going to change and we aren't going to change for them,” continued Vanney. “It's going to be a cagey match, similar to what we saw in the Champions League, where you get two teams who can punish if you make mistakes.”
Altidore wants it to be more of a chess match than a foot race.
“Keeping the ball, not losing the ball in silly spots, taking care of the ball, picking and choosing our times to really exert ourselves,” listed Altidore of what TFC must consider. “When you play teams like [them], if you're careless with the ball, give up too much space, these teams thrive off that and they can hurt you.”
And Atlanta's preferred method, to run all over the opposition, is very different from Toronto's.
“[Miguel] Almiron's ability to accelerate the game, open space, is special. We don't have that,” explained Vanney. “We have guys that move the ball quickly and will break you down. It's different than a guy picking up the ball and sprinting at top speed. We don't want to provide them with a boat-load of space.”
But if Atlanta do open up, Toronto knows what to do.
“If you open up against us, you can get punished. We certainly have the players that can hurt you,” said Eriq Zavaleta. “We're welcome to any challenge, excited about the possibility of going down to Atlanta, try to knock them off. They've been the leaders of MLS for the course of this season. They're not going to be afraid of us either, they're going to go after us. That's a challenge we'll always welcome.”
“We've never been afraid of any team,” continued Zavaleta. “We still believe that we're the standard of MLS, that we're the team to beat. We will continue to be until someone knocks us off. We're going to go in there confidently and see what we can do.”
It is a test worthy of the moment; Toronto has seen many similar ones before.
Said Vanney: “Our group has always been the type that the bigger the moment, the more focused the group is. The bigger the challenge, the more they understand they need each other, they have to perform at their peak level, the more engaged, excited they get. They know there is a statement to be made.”
“There is a lot of confidence in the group,” added Vanney. “It's as a good a time as any to play some of the teams at the top of the table, really challenge ourselves and see where we're at in terms of our revitalization.”