TORONTO – Buckle up, the games only get bigger from here on in.
Toronto FC return home to BMO Field on Sunday for a match against NYCFC.
Riding a six-match unbeaten run, after a pair of crucial 2-2 draws on the road, Toronto will be looking to continue that form against a side battling at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Two wins apiece over Ottawa Fury FC in the Canadian Championship and the Chicago Fire in the league, began TFC's march. A last-minute Tosaint Ricketts equalizer continued the run last weekend against Atlanta United on their patch, while midweek a late own-goal salvaged a draw away against Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the opening leg of the Canadian Championship final.
To close a dramatic week, Toronto are glad to be home.
“Amazing,” said Alex Bono of being back. “Home games seem to be rare occasions these days. It's special when we get to go out at BMO in front of the fans and try to put on a show for them.”
With NYCFC on Sunday and the return leg against Vancouver on Wednesday, there is plenty at stake.
“Two massive fixtures coming up,” continued Bono. “We set a goal to get back into the Champions League next year, Wednesday we have an opportunity to do that. We have a big fixture on Sunday before that. Two big matches at BMO Field. We know the support is going to be incredible. We're excited.”
Said Greg Vanney: “The priority right now is New York.”
“It's a home game and points are important as we work our way back into the picture,” explained Vanney. “It's a busy week though. We'll take all things into account, get the result we need one game at a time.”
With another long flight scheduled for next Saturday as well, Vanney will lean on the entire squad over the coming days.
“Three games in six days, one all the way across to San Jose, it's all hands on deck this week,” said Vanney. “We need everybody to be ready for every game.”
Toronto has been able to rest several players in anticipation – Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, and Gregory van der Wiel did not play in Vancouver – while there could be a new face or two in the fold over the coming weeks.
Jon Bakero, acquired from Chicago, has been in training and in the matchday squads. Lucas Janson, a deadline day addition on loan from Tigre in Argentina, is expected to arrive next week and Drew Moor is back in full training and could make his return.
“He's getting his way back,” said Vanney of Moor. “Been in full sessions this week, so hopefully he'll be in contention for some minutes – not sure how long just yet. We'll see.”
“Everybody needs to be ready for next three games,” urged Vanney. “Then we'll have a minute to catch our breath.”
These are important games.
“We look at all the games coming forward as almost must-wins,” stressed Bono. “We have to [put] results on the board, to make sure we give ourselves the best chance to make the playoffs. That's the main goal right now. Once we find ourselves in a playoff position, we'll worry about seeding. Right now our goal is to get above that playoff line.”
And up first, is a familiar opponent, New York City FC.
Since NYCFC joined MLS for the 2015 season, they and Toronto have had some epic encounters, including in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, where TFC dismantled NYCFC 7-0 over the two legs of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
In regular season play, NYCFC have gotten the better of TFC, with three wins to Toronto's one, while four other matches have ended in draws.
These are hard-fought, regularly high-scoring, clashes.
“They're versatile and well-prepared, have a lot of players that can hurt you in different ways,” cautioned Justin Morrow. “They know what they are as a team; we'll have to be well-prepared.”
Recounted Bono: “Good in possession, good opening up the field, wingers are crafty, solid defensively. When you go there, the field is a factor. They're coming here this time, we're going to put the game on our teams, make them adjust to the way we play.”
And just to add to the challenge, David Villa, who has not featured since the clubs met last – on June 24 at Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC won 2-1 after TFC took the lead – looks set to make his return.
Villa has relished playing against Toronto, scoring seven goals in as many matches, registering one assist. For his part, Giovinco has responded in kind with six goals and three assists in eight games.
Though an important part, Villa is tied with two other players – Maxi Moralez and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi for the team lead in goals, each with eight, while four other players, including Jo Inge Berget, who scored both in the last meeting, have added multiple strikes.
That last match was the start of a new era however, as Domenec Torrent took charge of NYCFC for the first time.
Since then, Vanney has spotted some subtle differences in how NYCFC go about their business.
“He encourages them to initiate pressure a little higher, more of a press,” explained Vanney. “Not all the time, but when they have the opportunity. Higher than say Patrick [Vieira] did.”
“A lot of it is nuances,” added Vanney. “They're still a possession-oriented team, going to try to play through, still have their key players in key positions. They tend to be a little more aggressive on defending side [under Torrent]. Whether they take that stature at our place? We'll find out as the game starts.”
And that the game will be played at the relatively-spacious BMO Field, not the postage stamp pitch in New York, will add an element as well.
“It'll look more like a soccer game and less back-and-forth,” forecast Vanney. “The spacing is better. Sometimes when we go [there] it becomes a game of pressure, you try to disrupt the game by defending.”
“Here, everybody has to respect the spaces are more, stay together, stay connected,” said Vanney. “Both teams are very competent, can you hurt with the ball when you get pulled apart.”
The last few weeks for TFC have been all about momentum.
“It's about week-to-week results and performances, building on [each one],” said Morrow. “We were able to get two results on the road. That was big for us. Now we need to come home and have better performances and get the results.”
That has bolstered the side as they look to continue climbing the table. Bono pointed to the second half against Chicago, the last time Toronto played at home, as a “big momentum shift.”
“Every time we go out and put a good performance in, get a good result,” began Bono. “It's going to add to our confidence, to our form, make us feel how we felt last year.”
“It was about this time last year we went on a crazy run,” recalled Bono, referring to a six-game winning streak that began on August 12; coincidentally, it was proceeded by a five-match unbeaten run. “It's time for something like that to happen again.”