TORONTO – International break complete, MLS action returns midweek for Toronto FC as they travel to the American capital to face D.C. United.
The two sides played out a rollicking 4-4 draw on June 13 with D.C. taking a three-goal lead in the first half only for TFC to storm back in the second. Yamil Asad looked to have snagged the game-winner in the final minute of regulation, only for Nick Hagglund to pop up with a back-post header in the 92nd minute, his second goal of the match.
It was not one for the faint of heart.
“We'll see if we can be a little tighter defensively and continue to create some problems,” smiled Greg Vanney on Tuesday. “That's going to be a big thing for us going down the stretch. Tightening up on the opportunities we're giving away.”
Three matches remain on the season for TFC. Throughout they will aim to use these games to workout some of the issues that have arisen over the course of the year ahead of the 2019 Concacaf Champions League, which kicks off in February.
With seven players returning from their respective international sides, just what sort of XI Vanney will have at his disposal remains to be seen. Wednesday could be a chance for a handful of younger players – Liam Fraser, Ryan Telfer, Ayo Akinola – to get valuable minutes as they continue their development.
Vanney will be watching for, “how they fit into the group.”
“Individual performance is going to be based on they how fit in with the other guys, fit in seamlessly to what we're trying to do tactically,” explained Vanney. “To not do too much, just be a part of the group.”
“Their understanding of the game, recognizing what is going on, and managing the environment,” continued Vanney. “You've got a team that is vying for that final playoff spot, so they're going to come out with a real intensity at home. [It's] how our young guys manage all of that.”
In D.C., Toronto face a team in exceptional form over the last six weeks. Winners of three-straight, unbeaten in seven, they have lost just two of their last 14 matches stretching back to the end of July.
“Their home form has been great, they're playing at a high level,” said Jason Hernandez. “For us, it's to match their intensity, execute the game-plan to the best of our ability and give ourselves a chance to get a result.”
“We feel strongly that we can compete with all the teams in the league,” added Hernandez. “On our day, we like our chances against anyone, anywhere.”
Leading the way for D.C. is Wayne Rooney, who joined the side midseason and has racked up nine goals and seven assists in 17 appearances. A legend of the English game, his career speaks for itself.
A healthy respect for what he has accomplished is warranted, but Toronto will not be overawed.
“Before the game, it'll be a bit crazy to look on the other side of the pitch and see him there,” admitted Fraser. “But as soon as the game kickoffs, he's just another footballer. That's my mentality going into it.”
“I know it won't be [easy]: a player of his stature, unbelievable the accolades he's attained,” continued Fraser. “It's going to be a lot of combination, guys helping out in the midfield. With that mentality, we can shut him down.”
Whether it's Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, or the like, these are special challenges.
“Any time you see those guys on the schedule, it's something you pay attention to because these are great players,” said Hernandez. “It's a great test. It's not going to be one guy's job, but as a team to really concentrate, make sure we're locked in for the full 90-plus minutes. We're up for it.”
Having spent the majority of the early season on the road as their new home, Audi Field, was completed, the coinciding of Rooney's arrival and a string of home matches have seen D.C. rocket up the table. Heading into the final three matches, they have a one-point lead over the Montreal Impact for the sixth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference and a game in hand.
“More than anything, it's his leadership,” explained Vanney. “Guys who we've always thought were good players have emerged as difference-makers in our league by having a strong leader. That's been his biggest attribute. And obviously, he's a very good soccer player.”
“[Rooney] has had a massive influence on their locker room, but also on the field. Once you can build some belief and momentum in this league, you can get on the right side of results,” observed Vanney. “Even when we played them in the 4-4 game and they were at the bottom of the table, I felt like they were a better team than their position showed. I always knew it was going to be interesting when they got home and added a player like Rooney.”
Still just 32-years-old, Rooney has been everything and more than a club can ask of a designated player.
“He has been around a long time, but he's still got years in front of him,” said Vanney. “He's taken that experience, what he's used to win championships and big games, to be selfless. Even at Manchester United, he would take on different roles for the benefit of the team. His influence has been impressive. Ben Olsen and the staff knew what they were getting with Rooney.”
“He's provided a group that has been relatively young, hard-working, honest, and competitive, a little more purpose and belief with what he is capable of doing,” added Vanney. “His involvement has been a massive transformation for [Luciano] Acosta. Some of that is leadership; some is a partner to play with that makes sense for him.”
In his third year in MLS, alongside Rooney, Acosta, a 24-year-old Argentine midfielder, has flourished, scoring nine goals and registering 16 assists, one behind league-leader Borek Dockal of the Philadelphia Union.
“He's always been very dynamic, but now the partnership with Rooney [takes it to another level],” said Hernandez. “They're unpredictable at times, able to put some plays together. So it's key for us to keep an eye on him, limit his time on the ball and opportunities. That will help us with Rooney as well.”
According to Vanney, it is Rooney's “demeanour” that gets the best out of his teammates.
“He makes sense for Acosta,” said Vanney. “Another guy who understands the game, who Acosta can connect with, but you also see Rooney like a big brother on the field, keeping him focused on the right things. You see the partnership that is there. Acosta didn't necessarily have a partner; now he does. It allows Acosta to drift into different areas, have an impact on the game. He's blossomed.”
The duo have even earned themselves a nickname, the portmanteau of 'Lucharoo.'
“I'm a big fan of the combination names in any way you can do it: celebrity couple,” smiled Hernandez. “It's creative and I like it. Good for them.”