TORONTO – The action is just getting started.
Four matches under their belt, having finally played on consecutive weekends, Toronto FC is ready for the schedule to pick up as a busy summer period fast approaches.
“In some aspects I feel like the season hasn't really gotten going,” said Greg Vanney after training on Wednesday. “We finally played back-to-back weeks. We're just getting going, whereas last year [at this point] you were almost ready to catch your breath.”
“I like the build up this year, it helps us in our mindset,” added Vanney. “This is a process of getting better each game.”
Undefeated, TFC heads to the Pacific Northwest this weekend for a clash against Seattle Sounders FC, themselves unbeaten through five matches with four wins and a draw.
It is a match that sees Toronto set to play more regularly with a game every weekend through the start of May. That May 4 date against Orlando City SC kicks off a barrage of five matches in 15 days, three of which are on the road.
Preparing the depth for that period will be one of the goals over the coming weeks.
“Guys are getting antsy. They want to play a role,” said Vanney of the players who have seen limited minutes through the stop-start beginning. “We need to find the right ways to do that, try to keep momentum on our side. We know we're going to get busy in May, [it's] incumbent upon us to have everybody prepared to contribute.”
And in Seattle, who are pushing along with the two Los Angeles-based clubs at the top of the Western Conference, Toronto will face a stiff challenger, though Vanney is not interested in measuring sticks at this time of year.
“It's an opportunity [to] see a different type of game than we've seen thus far,” reframed the coach. “When you look at NYCFC, even though they want to be an aggressive, attacking team, they're very structured. Chicago, a very different approach. Seattle is much more mobile, much more interchange; still wants to be very aggressive.”
“It's really early for measuring or deciding who will be in the championship game,” dismissed Vanney. “This is an opportunity for us to have a different experience, to problem solve when things look different than we expected, to maintain control. The group is excited because they know this game is going to have some tempo to it, some pace; they're going to have some space to play.”
Toronto has played just one road match in the league thus far: winning 3-1 at the Philadelphia Union on opening day back at the start of March. Not that a visit to CenturyLink Field will change their approach at all.
“It's tough to play there, always difficult, but we don't have to change, we have to play like we play,” maintained Chris Mavinga. “If you change, you can't be good. We have to play our football, be confident, be focused for 90 minutes and be ready.”
“We prepare like it's a normal game. We know they're a good team, but we have to focus on our team,” added Mavinga, who relishes the chance to remind the rest of the league that TFC is still TFC. “Everybody thought we were not a good team anymore, but we still have the same players, still have confidence.”
Seattle were meant to play a midweek match on Wednesday night away to the Colorado Rapids, but it was cancelled due to inclement weather. While that may impact what the Sounders will do, again, nothing changes for TFC.
“It may change something in their rotations, what they would have put out there,” suggested Vanney. “It doesn't change anything for us.”
Though disappointed and frustrated at dropping two points at home last weekend in a 2-2 draw against the Chicago Fire at BMO Field, Toronto enters in good spirits and ready to roll on, especially Jonathan Osorio, who opened his account on Saturday against the Fire.
“You want to get your first one: after you get that confidence,” said Osorio. “It's what happened to me last year too, in league play: it took me a few games to get my first, but after I did I felt I was getting into a rhythm.”
“We know it's going to be a tough game: a team that moves the ball well, creates a lot of chances, has a lot of dangerous threats up front,” cautioned Osorio. “They're a fast team. We've been working on some defensive things, how to stop them, and working on our offence to make sure that it's still going well.”
Seattle too will be looking forward to the match, coming off a 1-0 home win over Real Salt Lake last Saturday where Nicolas Lodeiro provided the goal.
Fuelled by the offensive talents of Lodeiro (two goals, three assists), Jordan Morris (three goals, one assist), and Raul Ruidiaz (three goals, one assist), Toronto knows they are in for a tough match.
“They're very mobile up front between Morris, Lodeiro goes wherever he wants to go, and Ruidiaz is a mobile forward – he's never going to be in one place,” explained Vanney. “Morris, really a forward who is playing on the wing, he's very aggressive in his running, fast, powerful. He will drift to the outside, play like a winger, but he'll also come in and play like a second forward.”
Since joining the side midway through last season, the Peruvian Ruidiaz has 13 goals in 18 league matches, as well as three in two playoff games.
“Part of [Ruidiaz's] greatness is that he shows up in different places, is active and mobile; you've always got to account for him. [Christian] Roldan is active and busy, whoever they decide to play on the other wing – they've got options – will also be dynamic,” outlined Vanney. “That's the challenge: they're dynamic, comfortable on the ball, have pace and power, and have different ways to go about things.”
“You have to be able to manage all those through collective defending, through attention to detail,” stressed Vanney. “You also have to match the athleticism. Be really aware and attentive.”
Averaging more than two-goals-per-game, there has been a slight change in how the Sounders approach the match from previous seasons.
“As a result of them having such success on the attacking side, they've been a higher pressing team, able to keep teams penned in. They're a team that has always been good in possession, they've taken a few percentage points out of that mindset and put more into an attack mindset,” suggested Vanney, adding that Seattle are more aggressive and proactive this year. “As a result, they've been more goal dangerous. I don't think they've changed a ton as a team, in terms of what their players bring to equation or the way they do things, just their mentality is slightly different than years past.”
“We have to be smart, be who we are,” urged Vanney. “We're going to try to back them up, take advantage of what we believe is there for us and create opportunities. It will be an interesting match up. We have a dangerous team that they're going to have to deal with.”
Seattle won the only meeting between the sides last season – 2-1 at BMO Field, but TFC won the return fixture in 2017 – 1-0 with Jozy Altidore providing the goal.
And, of course, no meeting between these two clubs could arrive without mention of the back-to-back MLS Cup Finals the two contested in 2016 and 2017.
The Sounders took the first in a penalty shootout, famously without managing a shot on goal, while TFC got their revenge the following year with a resounding 2-0 victory.
“We've had pretty important games in the past,” said Osorio. “We played them in two finals: we got one, they got one.”
“The one that they got, I don't know.. it hurts still,” added Osorio. “Every time we play them it's a good challenge. They're a great organization, have been for a while, it's always good to go up against them.”
Though now is not the time to settle that larger deadlock.
“The best-of-three is if we make it to the final and so do they. That's when that will get settled,” maintained Osorio. “This is a league game. We want to stay undefeated, but the best-of-three, that's for another time.”
Toronto are looking forward to the challenge, a timely reminder of what it takes to reach such heights, and the sheer enjoyment of such an affair.
“It feels like a fun game,” relished Vanney. “You know the competition level is going to be high, two teams with unbeaten records.”
“Whenever you get these types of game they're fun. They ask for more concentration, more mental energy,” continued Vanney. “They get you excited because you know they're a dynamic team; we like to be a dynamic team. You know that both teams are going to go after each other. Both are interested in trying to attack and control the balance of power.”
Not to mention the raucous crowd in Seattle.
“It's always an exciting atmosphere – 40-50,000,” added Vanney. “They'll be heavily involved, that always makes for an exciting game.”