TORONTO – Five matches, 22 goals.
There's been no shortage of action for Toronto FC to start the 2019 season, having scored 14 goals and conceding eight. No match has seen fewer than four goals.
Entertaining, yes, but hardly the style that Greg Vanney and his coaching staff imagine when sketching out plans.
And with both previous encounters with this weekend's opponent, Minnesota United FC, having been goal-fests themselves – averaging six-goals-per-match – Vanney is hoping that as the steady pace of games continues that wild element is less of a factor.
“Even the Seattle game, for us, too many goals,” said Vanney on Thursday. “Anybody can win on any day when it becomes that open. That's not a way we want to play. We want to keep things more controlled. That suits us better.”
After a stop-start beginning through the opening month, Toronto will finally be playing a fourth match in successive weeks, and though they lost their first game of the season last weekend in Seattle, falling 3-2 to Sounders FC, the side is in “high spirits,” according to Alex Bono.
“It's been a good start,” said Bono. “We take lessons from those games and move on. This will be another challenge for us; another home game in front of a great BMO crowd. Friday Night Lights: it's exciting.”
Welcoming them home to BMO Field will be the newly-reinforced, hybrid pitch with the SIS grass having been stitched in over the last fortnight. But intent on ruining that homecoming will be Minnesota, who know a thing or two about playing on the road this season, having opened their campaign with five away matches before the first match at their new stadium, Allianz Field, last weekend – a 3-3 draw against NYCFC.
“They have good players, a good team. [Darwin] Quintero is always a guy you've got to be aware of. He did number on us last year,” said Vanney, referencing the Colombian's 2018 hat-trick against TFC. “It's just making sure he doesn't have a lot of space, doesn't have the ability to face us and run at us. We talked about that last year; saw the repercussions of giving him too much space.”
“They've got wide players who are also very aggressive, like to look at the space in behind,” cautioned Vanney. “And they've got a big target striker that they will play into.”
Quintero leads the side with three goals and three assists through five appearances, while the target striker, Angelo Rodriguez, has two goals and an assist, as does one of those wide attackers, Romario Ibarra.
In the two previous meetings, the home team has won by the odd goal: TFC 3-2 in 2017 and Quintero fuelling the Loons to a 4-3 last season.
Having been on the end of what Quintero can do, Toronto has his threat in mind heading into the match.
“I've seen enough of him, know his tendencies,” said Bono. “We've watched some video and we know what he did to us last season. From that we take our lessons and prepare as best we can. A player of his quality, it's difficult, but we've done our homework.”
Earlier in the week Vanney noted that he liked how Toronto's opening five games were laid out, as it saw the team encounter a variety of different approaches from the opposition.
That will come in handy, as Minnesota have been experimenting with several different iterations.
“They played New York Red Bulls, allowed them to have the ball, played more a counterattacking style. [Then] they go home, are excited in their building; start in a really aggressive posture against NYCFC. It ends up a slug-fest in first 20 minutes,” contrasted Vanney. “With quite a few new players, [they] are still defining what is going to best for them. They've done different things, but we're prepared because we've seen both.”
“We've got to deal with their strengths, then we'll gauge whether they come in to be aggressive with us defensively or if they sit a bit more, are patient and play for the counter. That's something we'll have to assess as the game goes,” explained Vanney. “We've seen both; need to be prepared to handle and manage that., use what we've talked about in creating opportunities against them and forcing them to defend. For us, it's staying connected as a group. Last week we [didn't] and that led to some situations that became out of our control. That's not a position that we want to be in.”
After a pair of tough seasons since joining MLS, Minnesota took a page out of the Toronto strategy to recruit some savvy MLS veterans in the offseason: Osvaldo Alonso and Ike Opara. Opara, however, looks set to miss the match after a scary clash of heads in the match against NYCFC.
“They've become a much different team, so it's a new test,” said Bono. “They're rejuvenated coming off a high-energy game with NYCFC. A lot of talent, they're fast.”
“Alonso was a big boost for them; Opara; guys who have had great MLS careers already,” said Bono. “To bring those kind of guys in says a lot about their ambition and the experience they have. We know what to expect, we've been watching them.”
“We're looking forward to it,” he added. “It promises to be a high-paced game.”
On the heels of the loss in Seattle, Vanney has challenged his side to respond.
“In the last couple games we left a few points on the table that we would have liked to have picked up, a few plays we would have liked to have made,” said Vanney. “We're still establishing that clear identity that we want to have; what makes the game look good for us, despite the opponent.”
“Be more resilient in pushing the game back into our view. Dealing with what comes our way and ready to answer back and get the result,” stressed Vanney. “Whatever that takes.”