TORONTO – Nary a moment to celebrate or reflect, another game lies ahead.
Toronto FC are back in action on Saturday night as they hit the road for the first of two straight away from home when they face D.C. United at Audi Field, just days removed from that dramatic win over Atlanta United FC on Wednesday night.
The conclusion against Atlanta was a wild one, with Alejandro Pozuelo converting from the penalty spot in stoppage-time only for Atlanta's Pity Martinez, who had already beaten Quentin Westberg from 12 paces, to send his second over the bar in the 98th minute. Nevermind that the final whistle had already been blown.
The 3-2 win ended TFC's winless spell at eight matches, and offered a reminder to any who may have doubted that there is still plenty of fight in the side.
While admittedly “pleased with the performance,” there was something else that coach Greg Vanney wanted to emphasize on Thursday after training.
“It's always good to have that feeling after winning a game,” said Vanney ahead of the D.C. match, “When you win games like we did [on Wednesday], it's a reminder [that] this is what it takes to get results.”
“We have to be resilient through games, it's going to have it's ups and downs,” continued Vanney. “Now we've got to recover physically for our third game in seven/eight days, other guys are going to have to step up when their numbers are called, perform and duplicate what we did [against Atlanta] from work standpoint.”
Work was the operative sentiment at the heart of the result against Atlanta, the defending MLS Cup Champions.
“It was a good team performance,” explained Richie Laryea, who battled all night with Brek Shea up the attacking right. “Everyone dug in deep. A good grind and a good three points.”
There was an intensity about the side on the night.
“For me, a big part of it was we played Pozuelo up top,” began Vanney. “When you played forward, he kept the ball 90% of the time. That allows the guys we had underneath him, who are all runners, to run off of him, break lines.”
“The amount of running we got out of midfield was, by far, our best all season. We threatened the space behind them, made the defense have to make decisions and choices, and when we did we found the solutions because we created the space for each other,” continued Vanney. “I was proud of the commitment, the running, the relationships – guys being aware of each other – that was on the field.”
“Ultimately, that's what creates chances, nothing else. You could put the best strikers in the world on the field, if you don't have people moving defenders, making defenders make decisions and unbalancing the opposition, then you're not going to,” added Vanney. “The guys just worked. That's what it takes to win.”
Everyone loves the finer things in the game, the beautiful bits, but there are other elements that are just as important.
“Everyone really wanted these three points,” stressed Laryea, who did not stop moving all match, winning what proved to be the game-winning penalty kick by continuing to dash into the area come second half stoppage-time. “We started the game well with the early goal; we felt like we were the better team, controlling things. I thought I could do my part, help with whatever I could do, if that's making a tackle, making a play. Everyone had the same intensity on the day.”
Westberg has a word for those intangibles.
“That's heart,” said the goalkeeper, who wore the captain's armband on the night. “We know we're in a great club, in a great place, and we really want to do well. You can do as much as you want technically, tactically, but if you don't walk into the game with a lot of heart and determination, then you're going to lack something in the end.”
“We need to make sure we come with the same ingredients,” urged Westberg ahead of the D.C. match. “We showed some great moments on the ball [against Atlanta], but [also] that we were a team; that we had a lot of heart. We can travel a long way with that.”
Toronto and D.C. have already met once this season, playing out a 0-0 draw at BMO Field on May 15, where TFC out-shot the visitors 36-3, but could not find the back of the net.
D.C.'s Ben Olsen opted to leave all three of his most gifted offensive weapons – Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, and Paul Arriola – on the bench. It is doubtful he will do the same this time around. And Rooney is coming off a stunning long-range strike that proved the game-winner in a 1-0 home result over Orlando City SC on Wednesday, extending their unbeaten streak to four matches. They have lost just once in their last eight, competing for the top of the conference.
“They've got guys who can make plays,” summed up Vanney of D.C.'s main threats. “Rooney's goal was world class. Very few players from their half of the field are looking to see if the net is available to them – it's not the first time he's done that. The capacity for him to make plays, and to bring the rest of the team into plays, is special.”
“Acosta is always a guy who gives you fits because he has no position on the field essentially,” highlighted Vanney. “He just shows up all over the place and creates little numerical disadvantages and you've got to figure out how you can deal with those situations.”
“And they've got a stingy defense,” added the coach. “For years they've been a team that is so hard to play against. They grind out results. They're going to work hard defensively, their centre-backs are big guys, who are going to protect the goal. We've got to find ways to break them down, to manage their transitions, and to take care of the two up top.”
The draw in May extended D.C.'s unbeaten run against TFC to four matches – three of those have been draws. D.C. are unbeaten in two at home against TFC, stretching back to a win in early 2016. The two last met in Washington DC in October, where the hosts won 1-0 on a goal from Rooney.
But with the three points in the bag over Atlanta and a chance to make up some ground on another Eastern Conference contender on Saturday, TFC want more. And after Saturday is another mouth-watering fixture as they head to California to face the LA Galaxy on July 4.
“It does feel like we turned a corner,” said Laryea. “This will set us up nicely going forward. These are two road games coming up that we can get some points out of.”
Wednesday also saw Vanney reach another unique milestone: 200 game sat the helm of TFC.
“I don't spend a lot of time looking in reverse, I try to in moments, but we have a game coming up so quickly,” said Vanney. “A lot of my attention is on D.C., taking away the things from [the Atlanta game] in preparation for the next one.”
He did, however, reiterate something he said post-match: “[That] game was a microcosm of what 200 games can be like.”
“You're going to have your ups, you're going to have your downs. You're trying to problem solve, trying to put the team in places to be successful. And in the end, if you stick with it, you persevere, if you make good decisions, and guys are competing for each other, you trust each other and you stay aggressive, on the front foot, then in the end, you're going to be the winner,” continued Vanney. “You're not going to win every night in 200 games, but last night was kind of, 'We're going to be successful; we're going to have a successful season.'”
No other coach in TFC history has surpassed the century mark, let alone a double-century.
“We've just gone through a stretch that has been challenging. We'll problem solve it, we'll get guys back, get guys moving forward and we'll be successful,” added Vanney. “Last night was that. In the end, we were successful because of the work, and perseverance, staying together, and competing together.”