TORONTO – With the international break in full swing, the numbers up at the BMO Training Ground this week were a little diminished.
Seven Toronto FC players – Michael Bradley and Marky Delgado with the U.S. national team, Sebastian Giovinco with the Italian side, and Jonathan Osorio, Tosaint Ricketts, Ashtone Morgan, and Jay Chapman with Canada – are away on international duty
Despite the limited bodies, preparations for the final three matches of the 2018 season continue apace.
“We're looking looking into some of our defensive shape, dealing with transitions, our organization behind our attacks, things that we've talked about through the course of the year,” detailed Greg Vanney on Thursday. “A slightly different look, in terms of how we want to start our attacks. There are different variations, but not to try to change too many things.”
“We play D.C. [United], a team fighting for the playoffs: we're not going to roll over for them. Then we play our rivals, Montreal [Impact],” listed Vanney. “And then we play an Atlanta [United], which is always a fun game and they're playing for 69 points. These are meaningful games for us.”
The emphasis over these remaining fixtures is a return to the level that TFC achieved throughout 2017.
“We need to find a confidence, the swagger back in the way that we play,” said Bono. “Many times this season we showed glimpses of last season's form, commitment, ability. If we can find some consistency in the last three games in doing that, then we'll look at it and say, 'Next year, we're starting off on the right foot.'”
The difference from one year to the next lies significantly in one facet of the game.
“We're just giving up too many goals,” said Drew Moor. “We're giving up goals early in halves, which are big momentum swings. If we do give up goals, it can't compound into giving up multiple goals, especially at home. We need to be tighter, need to communicate better, and take a little more pride in not giving up goals near as often as we have. We know at the other end we can score goals and create chances, we have the guys to do that.”
In 2017, through 34 matches TFC conceded 37 goals. In 2018, through three fewer, TFC has already conceded 60.
“Every player is frustrated with the amount of goals we've given up,” continued Moor. “It hasn't been good enough. We need to come together, regroup, and say this season was not good enough. We need to take a lot more pride in being solid defensively.”
Added Bono: “We need to be really stingy. That was a strong point over the past two seasons. This season we let ourselves down in [that] department.”
Despite missing such big personalities, the vibes around training this week have been “good,” according to Moor.
“International weeks are always a bit strange, especially with the number of players missing this time. Training has been positive; it's been a lot of training. When it's a smaller group, you get more touches on the ball, get to attack a bit, even when you're a defender,” continued the centre-back, who is hoping to return to action in the coming matches. “It's been very focused; concentrated. It's different, but everybody is here is so professional and positive about each session, putting the right amount into it.”
With more than half of the internationals midfielders, a cruel twist was not lost on Vanney: “There was a bit of irony in today's session in that there were eight centre-backs on the field. That hasn't happened all season.”
Though there will be no playoffs, each game remains important.
“For guys personally,” explained Moor. “But as a group we need to make sure we finish the season strong. We can play spoiler in a couple games, but as professionals we have to go out and continue to do all we can to get three points each time we step on the field.”
Said Vanney: “We'll make do. This is a group that prides itself in playing meaningful games. It's a kick in the stomach to have these games not be as meaningful as they should be. But we'll use them accordingly. We want to enter next season with the mindset to try to win Champions League again.”
It is an unfamiliar position for a team that has grown accustomed to each game being the most important one.
“It's the first time in a long time that we can really play with no pressure,” noted Bono. “That seems like a crazy thing to say, but it's been two years: either we were prepping for playoffs, playing Champions League, or trying to get off to a good start.”
“We're working really hard,” continued Bono. “The last few days of training have been very difficult. We want to go into these last three games with a determination that we're disappointed we didn't make the playoffs, but we're going to be professional, come out, play our football, and try and put nine points on the board.”