TORONTO – Here it comes.
Speak to any player with a few years of MLS under their belt and the theme that emerges is how much of a grind middle portion of the schedule is.
For Toronto FC, that begins now.
Over the next two-plus weeks, TFC will play five matches in some 15 days, beginning with Saturday's all-Eastern Conference clash with Orlando City SC. A midweek visit to Atlanta United FC on Wednesday awaits before returning home for matches against the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United, ending the stretch away to Real Salt Lake on May 18.
“It's going to be an interesting one,” said Greg Vanney of the upcoming stretch. “Extreme changes in weather conditions is the first thing that we're going to encounter [in Florida]. Then quickly over to Atlanta, start preparing for a surface change, we've got to deal with that. And then we have a quick turnaround, come home, and play again.”
“We have to be smart in how we approach it,” continued Vanney. “We have to get the most out of guys, get guys opportunities; choose the strategy that can get us the most points, while also understanding that we still have a big season on the other side of these five. We want to get results; we want to get points.”
The Gold Cup break in June will provide some respite, but from there on, especially since Decision Day has been moved up to the beginning of October, it's a sprint.
For this spell, Toronto will approach it as they have every before.
“It's one game at a time, understanding that you can only play 90 minutes at a time,” said Michael Bradley. “In between, there are a lot of things that go into making sure you're recovered – mentally, physically – and you're able to step on the field every three-four days ready to give everything you need to help the team.”
If the last month was about finally getting weekly matches under the belt, this next few weeks will be about bracing for the intensity of the schedule as the season heats up. With seven matches this month, by the time June rolls around Toronto will have doubled the number of league games they have played.
Repetition and finding rhythm will be the emphasis.
“Our group, from an energy standpoint, needs to put some games together. This is a good opportunity for us,” said Vanney. “In terms of what we're trying to do there is some clarity now, we need some repetition and to tighten some things up.”
“The more games you have, the better rhythm you can get in,” explained Vanney. “In general, it's been a slow start to season, especially the very start. When you're a player, you want to play as many games as often as possible. The challenge for us as coaches is we want to make sure we don't run guys ragged, bury guys in this stretch. Players love this.”
“I don't know if I wish it was five matches in 15 days – that's a little bit extreme – but I like having a few games in succession,” added Vanney. “There's something to getting on the field, getting a rhythm over 90 minutes that you just can't get in training.”
The side is very much looking forward to it.
“Getting into a good rhythm – playing, recovering, and playing again – that's always a good thing,” said Bradley. “I personally always feel good and strong and at my best when there is a nice rhythm of games. And as a team over the last few years, we've had a lot of stretches where we've been able to put a lot of points on the board. One day at a time, one game at a time; everybody is excited for this stretch.”
It will also allow Vanney to work in some rotation, giving players who haven't seen a lot of minutes thus far, a chance to get out there.
“When games are so spread apart and you're trying to win, it's not so easy to rotate; it doesn't necessarily make sense. But now, with [so many] games coming up, guys know they're going to get some action,” observed Vanney. “They know their opportunity is coming. It's good for everybody, re-engages everybody; we're due for a bit of that right now.”
In Orlando, they will be meeting a team finding some form following a couple of tough years. After James O'Connor took over the coaching duties midway through last season, Orlando won just two of the 17 remaining matches – one of which was a 2-1 over TFC in Florida. They drew three others, but were never able to string together results.
Already through nine matches in 2019, they have won three times and have two unbeaten runs, including the two-match unbeaten one with which they enter Saturday's match having defeated Vancouver Whitecaps FC 1-0 and drawn 1-1 away to NYCFC last weekend.
The addition of 32-year-old Portuguese midfielder Nani, with five goals and four assists, has been central to a lot of the good Orlando has put together, but so too have others stepped up their game.
Dom Dwyer has three goals and two assists, while MLS sophomore Chris Mueller has two and two. Canadian international Tesho Akindele, another off-season addition, has chipped in two goals and an assist as well.
With a revamped back-line and some consistency, Orlando look a more sturdy outfit than the recent past. And in Nani, they have a true difference maker.
“You have to be aware of him at all times,” cautioned Vanney. “If we can force him to defend a little bit that will help, but there are a lot of times where he stays out and they look for him in the transition. Then he gets on the ball and can be dangerous.”
“He tends to tuck inside and look for balls between lines,” suggested Vanney. “Collectively, we have to keep our shape, not get out, chasing what we can't impact. Stay together as a group, be a little closer than we were [against Portland] and stay sharp. It's awareness as much as anything. Make sure [he] can't just float away from us and find space.”
Said Bradley: “He's made a big difference for their team so far.”
Toronto leads the all-time series with seven wins to Orlando's two, the tenth match ending all square. TFC have won three of their five visits to Florida, including two of the last three.
The side is braced for the challenge ahead.
“Going there is always difficult,” said Bradley. “Potentially our first hot game of the year, so knowing what it's like to deal with heat and humidity – especially for an afternoon game – is something we have to make sure we understand what goes into that. Other than that, it'll be about making sure we're sharp, doing all the things that we need to do to give ourselves a good chance to win.”
After a run of three straight matches against Western Conference opposition, TFC will face teams from the east in the next four games.
While the points on offer are the same in each, the circumstances are altered.
“These points directly impact the standings in a different way than when you play the Western Conference. It heightens the intensity, heightens the importance just a little bit,” said Vanney. “We're still: one-game-at-a-time, what does our performance look like, continue to put out better performances than we did last weekend, learn from them, and move forward.”