TORONTO – No matter what happened in the previous outing, when the next game kicks off the score is reset to 0-0.
Coming off a frustrating night in the heat and humidity of Texas last Saturday, where Toronto FC lost 3-0 to FC Dallas, the side is looking forward to that fresh slate when Wednesday comes around and Atlanta United FC come to BMO Field.
“Disappointed, but no one is discouraged,” said Jay Chapman after training on Monday. “We had a long discussion in the locker room about what we have to do to be better in games and to get results. It was a very productive conversation. Everyone is hungry to start putting some points on the board.”
Without the services of several key starters, either away on international duty or yet to return from injury, Toronto are searching for answers at both ends of the pitch.
For Greg Vanney, that quest begins with recognizing the situation they find themselves in. This interstitial period – after the Gold Cup break but before players return – is an odd one.
“I liken it to if you're sitting at a blackjack table and your hand isn't so great,” compared Vanney. “You play it accordingly. It doesn't mean we can't win games, but we need to be smart, play it with the right intelligence and the right approach.”
That begins at the back.
“At the moment, we're not a team that is going to have this prolific scoring attack. So we've got to make sure that we are protecting our goal, keeping the opposition off the scoreboard,” stressed Vanney. “We are a team that has been able to find ways to create opportunities, we just need to make sure we don't give up goals.”
“We need to win these games 1-0, 2-1 – a 2-0 would be nice,” added Vanney. “So we have to be smart in how we do that.”
The conversations since the weekend, according to the coach, have been about, “making sure that we're all seeing things the same way, reading situations the same way and we understand the solutions.”
And just to heighten the atmospherics, the next match sees the visit of Atlanta, a team with which TFC has had some epic tilts over the last two-plus seasons.
Atlanta took the earlier meeting this season 2-0 on goals from Hector Villalba and Julian Gressel, a modicum of revenge for a 4-1 Toronto win last October that denied the Five Stripes their shot at the Supporters' Shield en route to winning the 2018 MLS Cup.
The previous three meetings each ended in 2-2 draws.
“They're a team that we've seen a lot over the last couple years,” said Eriq Zavaleta. “We have a pretty good understanding of [them] – have already gone there and seen how they play [under new coach Frank de Boer]. We expect a tough game, but we expect, as always, to defend our home field and to get points.”
Atlanta will be without top scorer Josef Martinez, who is with Venezuela at Copa America, as well as Villalba due to injury and Franco Escobar through caution accumulation, but Ezequiel Barco has returned from the FIFA U-20 World Cup with Argentina.
Barco is second in team scoring with four goals and an assist through eight appearances, while Julian Gressel has two goals and three assists. Big offseason addition Pity Martinez, who was excellent in the earlier meeting with TFC, scored his first and only goal a week against Orlando City SC, but has since registered just two assists as his acclimation to MLS continues.
Even without the services of Josef leading the line, Vanney doesn't expect Atlanta to change anything how they go about their business.
“They want to get you opened up, chasing them around the field. When we played them at their place, we got pulled apart and guys like Pity and Barco can really hurt you,” recalled Vanney. “If we approach it with more strength in numbers, stay connected to each other and recognize where they can be dangerous and where they're not, then we can control their attack, which is one of the first things you do with them.”
“And then second, if we get into the right positions for each other and we move the ball quickly, we can create some problems,” added Vanney. “They've worked hard, went through their lumps early on to get their identity straight with the new coach. They'll try to come here and try to put the game on their terms.”
Having won just one of their opening six matches under de Boer, Atlanta went on a five-match winning streak that only ended away to the New York Red Bulls mid-May. They would drop another away match against Real Salt Lake a week later, but since then have won twice at home – against Minnesota United FC and the Chicago Fire leading into June.
During the Gold Cup break, they progressed through two rounds of the U.S. Open Cup, beating the Charleston Battery 3-1 after extra time on June 13 and 3-2 away to Columbus Crew SC on June 18 to reach the quarter-finals. It's worth noting that 20-year-old striker Brandon Vazquez scored four goals through those two matches, though he is yet to feature in MLS this season.
While the superstars – Josef and Pity Martinez and previously Miguel Almiron – get the headlines, the supporting cast is just as important. There is none better than Atlanta's German midfielder Gressel.
In three seasons, the 25-year-old has racked up 11 goals and 26 assists.
“A good runner, smart about the runs he makes. He has a good right foot, understands the players around him and the movements they're going to make,” detailed Zavaleta of Gressel's threat. “Another guy that we've got to keep an eye on, if you give him time and space he can hurt you.”
Vanney called him: “The best player to come out of college in a long time.”
“Understands the priorities in the game and not afraid to go out and execute them,” summed up Vanney. “He's very committed to the work – running between lines, threatening the space behind. He does a lot of gritty work for them and then he's a good player on top of it. He's strong, can hold up the ball, he'll attack if he can get facing forward, and when he doesn't have the ball his running is very smart. You can talk about all the stars, he's a guy that every time they line up and he's on the field, then they have a decent team.”
Winless in eight matches, short-handed and playing against one of the most fearsome sides in MLS over the past three seasons, it would be easy to get discouraged.
Zavaleta, however, described TFC as, “a group of hungry players looking to find solutions.”
“Momentum is a crazy thing,” continued the defender. “Right now, we're on the wrong side of it. But we have all the belief in the world that we're going to turn it around.”
“It starts with coming everyday, putting everything you have into every moment, whether that is the film sessions, on the field, or whatever that might be. We're doing a lot of the right things – have been for quite a while now. We're not seeing the fruits of our labour,” added Zavaleta. “It is the game, it is football; we'll have to turn it up a bit more.”