TORONTO – After that whirlwind stretch of games that concluded with a defeat away to Real Salt Lake, the Reds are looking forward to returning home to BMO Field.
Toronto FC will face the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday evening, kicking off a stretch of three matches against Western Conference opposition leading into the Gold Cup break in June.
“We're excited to get back home, back in in front of our fans,” said Justin Morrow after training at BMO Field on Friday, team picture day. “We love playing here at BMO, it's a great place to play.”
On the heels of that hectic spell, a full week to game plan for San Jose, getting in the required rest and recovery, will serve TFC well according to Morrow: “It was very important this week of preparation and much needed for us. To have that extra day, that the game is on Sunday, is going to go a long way.”
There will be an element of added intrigue as the Earthquakes come to town this weekend, both familiar and new.
Matias Almeyda, who led Chivas Guadalajara to the Concacaf Champions League last spring took over the managerial reins in Northern California in the offseason, installing his intense marking style.
Not that TFC needs any extra motivation to respond to a difficult few weeks of results.
“No, there's no extra motivation,” said Morrow, who spent four seasons with the Earthquakes before coming to TFC. “We have enough to be motivated about, coming off a tough stretch these last two weeks. We look forward to getting back home, to getting a win.”
San Jose lost their opening four matches of the season under Almeyda, but since then have lost just twice in the following eight matches, including a strong 4-1 win against the Chicago Fire last weekend.
“The first eight or nine weeks they were in a learning phase. A lot of the principles, from marking, defensive reading, things like that, were not quite there yet,” explained Greg Vanney. “But over the last few games, they're getting it: their marking positions are very good, they're three-to-four yards behind the player they're marking.”
“They allow you to have the ball in front of you, but are not going to let you turn and face them and they harass you if you get it. The right-back will follow [his mark] all across the field if he has to,” continued Vanney. “As players you're trying to figure out how you get free or unmarked, how you can have an impact on the game. It can be frustrating.”
“What I used to say about the Chivas team was that their individual defending principles are really good, this San Jose team has gotten better at that. That's the foundation of the marking system, if individuals are reliable, then the opposition is going to have a tough time,” added Vanney. “They create a unique scenario because of that.”
Those lessons from the last meetings were front of mind in video sessions and on the training pitch this week.
“We faced Almeyda before when he was coaching Chivas,” said Morrow. “So we've taken a look at that film, see what positives we can take out and what will help us prepare for Sunday.”
As with all tactical systems, their weakness is embedded within their strength.
“Most of their opportunities and goals come off of transition play,” observed Vanney. “[A function of] their unique system: creating a transition where they can then attack you quickly.”
“The way they play, you have to make them pay for the moments where you do get on the other side of the markers, that you do create the advantage for yourself,” stressed Vanney. “A couple teams haven't been able to make them pay and they've felt it on the other side.”
Chris Wondolowski is tied for joint-lead scorer thanks to his four-goal performance against Chicago, a match that also saw him being the all-time leading goal-scorer in MLS history, surpassing Landon Donovan with his 148th strike.
“He is very, very clever. Fox in the box, that's him,” warned Vanney. “About finding space, finding any way to turn things on goal – I saw recently he took one off his thigh to try to score. A true finisher, a true box forward. It's a craft that over the years he has continued to hone to the tune of the best goal-scorer in MLS history.”
“If he's on the field, you can't take him for granted, ever,” cautioned Vanney. “You always have to have, not just an eye on him, but a presence because he will slip away. When defenders end up watching the ball, he'll find a gap and he's got a knack for anticipation, for where the ball is going to arrive. I'd venture to guess that 75-80% of his goals were inside 15 yards.”
Added Morrow of his former teammate: “He's a tough opponent. In the box he's hard to find, always off people's shoulders, trying to lose his man, so we have to be communicating a lot to keep track of him.”
Wondolowski is tied with Shea Salinas on four goals, but Salinas also has two assists. An MLS veteran, capable of operating on both flanks, Salinas has flourished under Almeyda – the four-goal output is already a career best.
“He's this relentless attacker, got good speed, got a lot of experience. Quick, fast, but when he gets the ball, there is always purpose in what he's doing. He's going at you and going at you,” said Vanney. “Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't, but that doesn't mean he's going to stop, he's going to keep coming at you.”
“He's an honest player too, which fits well for what they're doing. If you're going to be an attacking player and a marker in this system, you've got to be willing to defend and mark full-backs who are going to go forward,” added Vanney. “He's adapted well and shown his qualities as a player.”
If Salinas is fielded on the right, he will be lining up against his former teammate, Morrow.
“Shea is such a great guy, such a hard worker. You can tell by how much everyone will talk about him, will sing his praises when you bring up his name,” said Morrow. “I'm right there with them.”
The two sides drew 1-1 in the only meeting last season with Lucas Janson and Wondolowski exchanging goals in California. Toronto have won the last three at BMO Field, dating back to a San Jose win in 2012. Almeyda's Earthquakes are winless on their travels thus far.
And with the SIS grass installation having been able to take root as the lousy weather in Toronto has finally begun to turn, the pitch at BMO Field is “gorgeous,” according to Morrow.
“It's one of the best in the league,” added the full-back. “And it's only going to keep getting better.”
Vanney too was pleased with the developments.
“Incredible,” said the TFC coach. “Since the first time they were weaving in the synthetic to now, the thickness has filled in, there are no gaps, the height is perfect, it holds up really well, nothing tearing up, it's really, really nice.”
“For me,” added Vanney. “It's the best field in the league again.”