TORONTO – This time of year, numbers take on an added importance.
August is the sixth month of the MLS season. Two more remain before the MLS Cup Playoffs begin; there is much to be decided over the coming weeks.
For Toronto FC, there are nine matches left in the campaign, the first of which sees them travel across the continent for a midweek date against the Portland Timbers on Wednesday night.
With one loss in their last six league matches (one in ten in all competitions with the Canadian Championship factored in), Toronto has taken nearly two points-per-game over that stretch. It is a run of form that will need to continue over the coming months.
In the midst of a record-breaking season last year, Toronto strolled to a 4-1 win over the Timbers last August at BMO Field, but this year is not last and Providence Park has been unkind to TFC in the past.
Toronto is yet to win in three trips to Portland, losing twice and drawing once. The most recent visit, in 2016, resulted in a 2-1 Portland win with Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri scoring either side of a Will Johnson strike.
“It's a tough place to play,” said Greg Vanney. “They've got a great crowd, great environment, the team has been highly successful. I think this is the first time they've dropped a couple games at home in years.”
Portland went unbeaten at Providence Park through their opening 10 home fixtures this season, a key part of a 15-match unbeaten run that was ended by Vancouver Whitecaps FC on August 11. Since, they have gone on to lose four-straight, including two at home to Cascadia rivals: first Vancouver and then Seattle Sounders FC this past Sunday.
“We'll try to make it three,” suggested Vanney. “But we know it's a tough place to play. We have to be on our game, be mistake-free, and execute the game-plan we want for Wednesday.”
In their first season under new head coach Giovanni Savarese, Portland too are fighting for their playoff lives having slipped below the line with the weekend defeat.
“I've watched them through the course of the season,” said Vanney. “They've progressed, developed an identity. [Their formation has] varied between playing a 3-5-2, 3-4-3, to something like a 4-2-3-1 or a diamond, depending on how they are setting up.”
“They're a good team, have got players who can hurt you, have some real speed on the wings, and some guys who can pass the ball,” cautioned Vanney. “And [Samuel] Armenteros is a handful: he's busy, he's strong. We know what Valeri can do. We've got to be sharp, on our game, and be mistake free.”
Valeri and Armenteros lead the way with nine and eight goals, respectively. Valeri, a constant threat, also has 10 assists on the season. Sebastian Blanco has added six goals and five assists as well.
“The one thing I would say about Seattle is they didn't make any big errors that really gave Portland that clear cut chance,” added Vanney of the Sounders 1-0 win. “They managed to be stingy; we've got to be the same way.”
In MLS, the ability to get on a run, stringing together a series of results, is vital.
“Momentum is a big thing in this league,” explained Vanney. “The margin between teams is not great, [so] sometimes it's confidence, it's clarity, those little things that give you an extra boost when you need a little more energy.”
“When you need to execute in the moment, confidence is always important,” continued Vanney. “These little things can make the difference in taking points and losing points. It's not always about quality, sometimes it's about form, and about the guys working together as a group and believing in what they're doing.”
“We're on a good run ourselves,” noted Vanney, referring to the last 10 matches in all competitions. “Dropped one, a game that we played down [a man]. We would like to continue and turn as many of those into wins as we can.”
August has been a testing month. Not only have the matches come thick and fast, but this midweek jaunt to Portland will be the third trip to the West Coast since the first leg of the Canadian Championship on August 8.
Thankfully, this will be the last such voyage of the season, the only away matches left will be to New York, D.C., and Montreal.
With so many miles already weighing on the side and a handful of nagging injuries lingering, Vanney and company must be judicious in choosing a squad, even more so given that Toronto faces expansion side LAFC on Saturday back at BMO Field.
“We'll take a group that we feel can win the game,” stressed Vanney. “With an eye on everything going on, in terms of where guys are at physically, but also knowing this is a big week: three games, coming home for the third one.”
The side will definitely be bolstered by the return of Jozy Altidore: “It's good to have Jozy back,” said Vanney. “Gives us some options.”
Aside from a pair of international breaks in September and October, it is a straight run from here to the playoffs. Toronto has nine matches remaining, each is of vital importance, but the overall mission takes precedence. The path to the playoffs doesn't matter, only that you arrive.
After all, “It's that time of year.”
“Everybody is looking at the standings, seeing where they're at and what they need,” said Vanney. “We have to keep building on our moments. It's about getting results, do what we have to do over the course of the game to get results.”
“It's that time of year where everybody digs down and the table is starting to show you want you need,” added Vanney. “In MLS, the last 10 games are always the most interesting and most exciting, because the table is really meaningful in these last 10 games.”