TORONTO – The MLS season resumes on Saturday for Toronto FC with the visit of the Los Angeles Galaxy to BMO Field.
Two weeks have passed since the other side from LA, LAFC, came to Toronto and left with the points, putting TFC in a delicate position: seven matches remain and nine points separate them from the final playoff berth.
During the international week, Toronto were hard at work on the training pitch.
“We were able to do some focused work,” said Greg Vanney. “Train, not just tactically or technically, but physically, to build up some of the endurance, durability, things we want down the stretch; also to recover guys from what has been a busy schedule.”
“This week we've worked more on team stuff: our shape, defending, transitions,” added Vanney. “Things in our vision of how we want to play, tightening things up and relationships, as we look to another busy week.”
As Vanney mentioned, it doesn't get any easier from here on in.
The Galaxy come on Saturday and then Toronto welcomes Tigres UANL to BMO for the inaugural edition of the Campeones Cup, which pits the MLS Cup champions against the Mexican title-holders. And then a difficult away trip to New York to face the Red Bulls lies ahead next weekend.
There is no room for error.
“We've got an eye on what we need to get over the course of this stretch and not many of those games include losses,” said Vanney. “This is an important one: home games need to be three points. We need to be smart, eliminate the mistakes. If we can play sound, quality, mistake-free soccer, then we have good chances to win games.”
Standing in their way will be the Galaxy, and with the news that Sigi Schmid would depart and Dominic Kinnear would take over the coaching position, there is an element of uncertainty about how LA will approach the match.
“It adds a wrinkle, in terms of how they set up, what they're playing for and their objectives,” suggested Vanney. “They've been playing a lot of 3-5-2, their version of it. Dom has been much more of a 4-4-2 coach, had a very specific style in both San Jose and Houston.”
“Having had this break, it's less about the Galaxy and more about us solidifying,” stressed Vanney. “And, meanwhile, understanding that we are dealing with Zlatan and with aspects of their team that, regardless of who the coach is, you've got to be prepared for and deal with appropriately.”
Ibrahimovic joined the Galaxy in March, marking his debut with his trademark panache, and has been as advertized since.
In 21 matches, he has 16 goals and 8 assists. Zlatan is Zlatan.
“He's come to the league, shown his quality,” said Vanney. “He's one of those players on the world scene we've watched for years; now he's in our league, doing his business. We've got to deal with him on Saturday.”
Detailed Justin Morrow: “Zlatan is a handful. We've got to get bodies around him. It can't just be one-on-one match-ups, especially in the air, because he'll dominate those.”
“He's got a physical advantage over everybody: his size and his strength. Balls into him are going to be hard to win,” continued Morrow. “And he's clinical finisher, so we've got to limit his chances.”
For Toronto, the starting point will be, “defending collectively.”
“We have to defend well as group, protect certain spaces,” continued Vanney. “We've got to be smart with how we manage him, starting with our awareness of where he is at – he likes to drift to different areas.”
“It's about recognizing when you can win something and when you can't. With his size and strength and technical ability, if you get yourself into a bad position, he's going to take advantage of it,” explained Vanney. “You try to take away his service, but they will just launch balls to him and because he is so big and strong, he'll set up shop and be able to get his fair share.”
The visit of Zlatan will be special, in particular for a former teammate of his, Gregory van der Wiel.
The two played together at French giants Paris Saint-Germain, winning a plethora of trophies over the four seasons.
“It's going to be fun,” said van der Wiel. “It's been a while since I've seen him. I played four years with him, it's going to be nice to see him.”
Van der Wiel has also played against Zlatan before as well, when with Ajax and Ibrahimovic was at AC Milan.
“He's always a big personality, but inside the room he's a nice guy,” said van der Wiel. “You can laugh with him, you can talk with him. [He's] not like people see on TV.”
The reunion is not limited to the two Europeans, as much of the TFC coaching staff has deep ties to the Galaxy organization: Vanney, Robin Fraser, and Dan Calichman all spent years playing for the LA side.
“There is always something special against the Galaxy. All of us have such a long history with that club,” said Vanney. “That takes the backseat to the importance of the day, the points, where we are and what need to accomplish.”
“It's a good game, an intriguing game,” continue Vanney. “The Galaxy also come, regardless of form, with the label as the franchise who have won the most over the course of the league's history. Regardless of what position they're in, they're still the Galaxy.”
While most of the buzz revolves around Ibrahimovic and his talents, it would be a mistake to consider him LA's only threat.
“There are good players around him too.” reminded Morrow. “We have to be aware of that.”
Both Romain Alessandrini and Ola Kamara have each chipped in nine goals apiece, while Chris Pontius has five to his name. And there are the dos Santos brothers, Giovani and Jonathan; not to mention the rest of the star-studded squad.
“They have a lot of interesting attacking pieces,” cautioned Vanney. “Kamara has scored a lot of goals in this league. He's very active, busy; will constantly be threatening the space behind the back-line, which creates space for Zlatan to hang out in.”
“Alessandrini is an excellent player, who tends to come off the right side. Left-footed and has the ability to create things; a tireless, relentless worker, doesn't give you a second to breath,” warned Vanney. “Dos Santos, capable of running the midfield. And they've got guys like Ashley Cole, who has had a good season creating opportunities, putting balls in the box, gets up and down the left side.”
“They're not short of weapons,” concluded Vanney. “Their Achilles heel is that they've given up a lot of goals. That's something that we'll try to take advantage of while staying solid on the defensive end.”
With the two sides in parallel situations, it should be an entertaining match, heavy with implication.
“They have a lot on the attacking side; defensively haven't been so strong,” suggested Morrow. “If we can limit their chances, and then get at them, they'll struggle with us.”