TORONTO – There is a clarity that comes from the current predicament.
Entering the final month of the 2018 MLS regular season, Toronto FC know exactly what they have to do through these next four matches to give themselves a chance.
Backs against the wall, win-or-go-home, be the last team standing. Whatever one terms the scenario, it is a familiar feeling for a side that has accomplish much in recent years.
“We've been in a lot of big games, playoff games, cup games, knockout scenarios,” said Greg Vanney. “Because of that the group understands it and in that way is comfortable with it. I don't think anybody is really comfortable with where we are in the grand scheme of things.”
“It locks this group in,” continued Vanney. “Understanding that a specific result and a certain type of performance has to be put out on the field. I don't think that's ever a bad thing. The more meaningful games you have, the more concentration, quality you tend to get. This group understands what that looks like.”
There are only two options for each match: emerge victorious or risk an early ending. Raised stakes lead to heightened intensity.
“We've just got to focus on ourselves, on our game plan,” stressed Ashtone Morgan, who was recalled to the Canadian national team along with three of his teammates this week. “We've been prepping well this week; just got to go out into the game and put our best foot forward.”
Standing in their way will be a familiar foe, the side Toronto beat in the final of the Canadian Championship in August: Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Though this time, with an interim coach, Craig Dalrymple, at the helm, there is an element of the unknown and limited tape to examine how his leadership will change the side.
“We watched the game last week,” said Vanney of Vancouver's 3-0 loss away to the LA Galaxy on Saturday. “There is a little discussion of them wanting to be more proactive defensively, trying to find ways to be more aggressive on the defensive side, create transitions higher up the field, so they're not having to break teams down.”
“Those are nuances. It's still the same group of players,” continued Vanney. “How they deploy will be up to Craig. He's a smart guy, will find his ways, but it's only been a couple weeks. I don't think you can completely change a philosophy and impact the group in a dramatic way in a couple weeks.”
The two legs of the final provided both a template on how to approach Vancouver and reminder of the areas Toronto needs to tighten up.
A late own-goal salvaged a draw in the away leg for TFC. Kei Kamara opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 24th minute, only for Jonathan Osorio to respond two minutes later.
A red card to Felipe before half-time put Toronto up a man for the remainder of the match, but Vancouver hit on a fast break from Erik Hurtado to seemingly take an advantage into the second leg before the last-second drama turned the tables.
At home a week later, goals in the latter stages of the first half from Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco put Toronto in the driver's seat. Altidore would complete his hat-trick with a further pair in the opening eight minutes of the second frame, but another strike from Kamara and one from Brek Shea provided some discomfort, at least until Tosaint Ricketts sealed the win in the 80th minute.
Toronto would lift a third-consecutive Voyageurs Cup and earn a spot in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League.
“We took care of the business we needed to, got into good spots, created lots of problems for them on attacking side,” recalled Vanney. “We conceded goals that we shouldn't have, but at the end of the day, with the ball we played well.”
“That's got to be an important aspect of how we play this time,” urged Vanney. “We've got to put their back-line into difficult situations, put their goal under pressure, and be able to manage [Alphonso] Davies, Kei Kamara.”
“We're focusing more on ourselves, the things we need to be doing, but understand their strengths are still their strengths,” stressed Vanney. “Davies is unbelievable in his ability to create out of nothing on the dribble, with his pace; to get out in open field and run at you. Kei is a big guy in the box, he's scored a lot of goals in our league, he knows how to get himself around the field. And they've got other players who are dangerous. We have to manage them on attacking side.”
Added Morgan: “We've got to be well-organized defensively, play our game. The quality we have in our squad will see us to the finish line; get the three points.”
October has brought with it a slight chill: a familiar chill; a clarifying chill. TFC know what to do.
“We're going to take it a game at a time,” said Morgan. “Right now Vancouver is on our plate.”