TORONTO – As the summer winds down, the heat is being turned up on Toronto FC.
Intent on clawing their way above the playoff line, Toronto are well aware of how vital these final eight matches of the 2018 MLS regular season will be, especially the five that will be played at home. Next up, a first-ever clash with LAFC at BMO Field.
“All the matches are important; home matches are really important,” stressed Greg Vanney. “We're going to put the best team out in the best possible way to come up with a positive result: three points is what we're looking for against a good team.”
“Everybody knows what is remaining in our regular season,” said Vanney. “Everything is urgent, everything is important, every point is vital. Everybody feels that. This is a group that has been around, played in big games: they know what that feels like and looks like.”
“This is the third game of this week, which is a challenge that we need to face, and after this things open up a little bit, we're able to prepare, and train, and recover on a normal basis,” added Vanney. “This one we really need to buckle down and grind it out.”
Much of the chatter in the build-up has revolved around the first-ever meeting between Michael Bradley and LAFC's coach, Bob Bradley, his father. Both are aware of how special and rare a night this will be, but neither goes much for distraction.
“It's business as usual,” said Vanney. “For [Michael], it's fulfilling his role within our group and helping the guys around him fulfil their responsibilities. There is obviously a great storyline that comes with the game, aside from that it's two teams trying to get a result on the weekend.”
Said Bradley: “Very excited. LAFC have a really good team; we think, despite some of the inconsistent results, that we still have a good team.”
“It should be a fun night, a good game,” continued Bradley. “We need points; they are still fighting to finish top of the Western Conference, so they really want points, it should be a great night.”
LAFC, in their first season in MLS, have proven a dangerous side.
“A lot of threats,” warned Vanney. “Their midfield is very mobile and interchangeable. [Carlos] Vela can show up in a lot of different places; a very technical player, smart player. [Diego] Rossi is very direct, fast, can take people on, will come off the wing; creates a lot of havoc. Within their forward crew they've got size, guys who are big, can get on the end of things, hold balls up. They've got a couple options in that role.”
Adama Diomande, joint top-scorer alongside Vela with nine goals, looks set to miss out with an adductor strain, but Latif Blessing and recent addition Christian Ramirez are able deputies.
“And Beita on the right side is always Beita,” said Vanney of former Red, Steven Beitashour. “He's a runner; he'll find his ways to get forward and be active in the attack.”
“They're a very versatile team, especially in their midfield, [which] is hard to manage because between the three guys they play in there they can show up in any position at any point,” noted Vanney of Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, and of late, Eduard Atuesta. “You can't really chase them around and manage them. You have to be smart, make sure you keep spaces tight and move as a group, manage the transitions and play smart team soccer; deal with all their influences in the right way.”
The return of Beitashour to BMO Field adds another thread to the tangle of storylines heading into the match. The defender spent two very successful seasons in Toronto before departing in the off-season as a champion.
“Beita was such a big part of everything we did here for two years,” said Bradley. “One of the best teammates I've ever had, without a doubt.”
“A guy who comes in every day, goes about his business, gives you everything he has and never thinks twice,” continued Bradley. “Never is looking for any credit. It's never about him, it's about the team. Guys like that are so important for good teams.”
“When he left here I knew we would miss him,” added Bradley. “The day he left, I joked with him, said, 'If you can't be here, then you're going to the next best place.' We miss him: his personality, his leadership. It's no surprise to see him going to another good team; making a big difference in all those same ways.”
A stalwart member of the LAFC back-line, Beitashour has even scored two goals this season, something he never managed with TFC.
“We saw a few goals,” smiled Bradley. “They may not have been at BMO; they might have been out there [on the training ground].”
Another familiar face that will not be making a return to town is Toronto-native Mark-Anthony Kaye, a product of the TFC Academy, whose season was ended in July by an ankle fracture.
“It would have been good to see him,” said Vanney. “I've spent a lot of time with Mark, his time around here. He's had a phenomenal season.”
“He's worked his tail off to get to where he is and he deserves it,” added Vanney. “It's unfortunate he isn't here, playing in front of his home town, but we wish him well getting healthy.”
And with the league taking a pause during the upcoming FIFA International window, Toronto can look forward to nearly two weeks between this match and their next: on September 15 against the LA Galaxy – their longest break of the season.
“I don't know if there is any way to have any added significance than to get three points,” said Vanney of heading in with a result. “We're finding [this break] to be important for us: to recover, get some guys back, to train a little bit – I feel like we never train – and prepare ourselves for the final stretch.”