TORONTO – Three wins from three, Saturday offers a chance to continue that perfect start to the 2019 MLS season.
Toronto FC will face the Chicago Fire at BMO Field on Saturday afternoon intent on humming along as the season begins to pick up pace after a stop-start opening month of play.
After gutsy wins over the Philadelphia Union and the New England Revolution, Toronto, with Alejandro Pozuelo installed alongside Jozy Altidore at the top of the formation, dismantled NYCFC last Friday.
Debut in the books, Greg Vanney is not concerned that opponents will now be more prepared for what Pozuelo offers.
“He's a smart player,” dismissed Vanney. “What we talk about with the group is recognizing what the opposition is doing. If they're pressing us that looks like one thing, if they're sitting back, we need to be more patient, not force the final pass if it's not on. We play what the other team gives us. It's about reading the moment.”
“The group in a really good place mentally, there is a lot of trust amongst each other out there,” added Vanney. “When that happens and the ball moves quickly, opportunities are going to set up for different guys to have an impact in every game.”
Even if they do try to man-mark him, that just opens up space for others.
“Teams can try,” suggested Vanney. “What's interesting now is teams try to man-mark Michael [Bradley], now Pozuelo: what is that going to mean for everybody else?”
“You're probably going to have to have two guys marking Jozy because he's a handful in and of himself,” continued Vanney. “So eventually, the numbers start dwindle and your ability to cover areas of the field gets difficult.”
The Fire will be the first opponent to face a Pozuelo-fueled TFC this season fully aware of what the group is capable.
Winless through their first three matches, Chicago come to town in good spirits, off the back of a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls last weekend, courtesy of an own-goal.
Entering his fourth season at the helm, Veljko Paunovic oversaw some substantial roster moves in the offseason. Former Red Alan Gordan retired, Michael de Leeuw, Yura Movsisyan, Luis Solignac, Matt Polser, and another ex-Red, Nicolas Hasler, who was picked up by Sporting KC, departed.
Of course, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Aleksander Katai, and Dax McCarty are still in place, while reinforcements arrived in the form of Brazilian defender Marcelo, Polish midfielder Przemyslaw Frankowski, former Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted, and striker C.J. Sapong was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia.
The Fire recently added 31-year-old Argentine midfielder Nicolas Gaitan, who spent a year in China after a long career split between Boca Juniors, Benfica, and Atletico Madrid.
“Limited minutes; he's a good player,” said Vanney – Gaitan has featured in one match for Chicago. “Clever, can play in three of the four attacking positions. He's going to look to get on the ball, can open up the game in different ways as a passing player, can run with the ball.”
TFC have won the last two meetings, including a 3-0 result last July at BMO Field, and are unbeaten in the last nine encounters between the sides, stretching back to 2015. At home, that unbeaten run is eight matches, back to 2012, but Chicago has managed three draws over that period.
Vanney cautions reading too much into how the Fire played against New York.
“It's difficult to assess any team and what their intentions will be [from watching them] play the Red Bulls. As I watched that game, Chicago were clearly comfortable letting New York have a bit of the ball and trying to play on the counterattack,” observed Vanney. “It's possible they play like that against us.”
“I don't see them stretching themselves out, trying to press us all over the field,” he continued. “NYCFC was opening themselves up just a little bit and our group was able take advantage of that space. I think they'll have a similar posture [to the win over Red Bulls]: trying to take away space from us, trying to play a little more on the counter.”
When they get the ball, however, that will quickly morph into attack.
“They showed a capacity to be direct, create opportunities by playing a little bit longer, putting balls over the top. Nikolic is a guy who is always running the line, threatening the space behind,” said Vanney. “They've got Frankowski now, [the same]; a good target in Sapong to play off. They'll look to protect themselves and for their opportunities in transition. If they find moments to keep possession, they're not opposed to it.”
As always, be prepared for the unexpected.
“Paunovic is not afraid to change something up,” cautioned Vanney. “Could see something that looks like five in the back also. That's entirely possible. They're coming off a solid victory, so I don't know that they'll change too drastically.”
“We're ready for whichever. The game will always take twists and turns based on goals, who scores first. These early games are good for different challenges as you're continuing to grow and get better as a group. We'll deal with whatever we get.”
The key for TFC: “Defending collectively, like we did this past weekend.”
“[Chicago] tend to have guys moving into different areas,” said Vanney. “We can't get caught chasing them around. We've got to be disciplined and organized, good with our spacing; try to duplicate our performance from the last game and build off of that.”