The road trip continues for Toronto FC as they prepare for Thursday night's Fourth of July clash against the LA Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.
Having returned from the Concacaf Gold Cup break into the sweltering heat of Texas and a loss to FC Dallas, TFC would go unbeaten through their next two matches against a pair of Eastern Conference rivals in Atlanta United FC and D.C. United last week, collecting a valuable four points.
A dramatic 3-2 win over Atlanta at BMO Field last Wednesday was a good response to the Dallas defeat. It was followed up by a tenacious road performance in D.C. that was minutes away from ending 1-0 to the visitors, only for a late penalty kick to ensure the points would be shared on the night.
International and injury absences aside, there has been new life in TFC these last few matches.
Along with a raised intensity and a certain doggedness as the summer grind begins, Greg Vanney highlighted Jacob Shaffelburg and Tsubasa Endoh as stepping into roles that have made a difference.
“What we've been able to add in these last few games is wide players in higher positions,” explained Vanney. “Runners, guys who want to try to get behind, who play for the space out in front of them.”
“In the past, our full-backs have been the guys who have given us width high up the field,” continued the coach. “It's very difficult for them to threaten the space behind, but also be [defenders]. It's a lot more ground to cover. With the reorganization, the reshape, with the signing of Jacob, a natural left-sided player, Tsubasa is a natural right-sided player – we also have Nick [DeLeon], who is a natural outside player, but has done fantastic in the middle – we've been able to be more aggressive and more assertive, play faster for those spaces.”
“I'm happy about it,” added Vanney. “It's the direction we want to continue to go”
The next challenge will be to see how that higher width functions on the vast acreage that is the Galaxy's home pitch come Thursday night.
In their first season under Guillermo Barros Schelotto, LA began the year in wonderful form, winning seven of their first nine matches, losing just once before the start of May. A four-game losing-streak, however, would follow.
The Galaxy would rebound with a pair of wins, only to head into the Gold Cup pause with a 2-1 loss at home to the New England Revolution, the new side of their former coach, Bruce Arena.
Back from the break, LA would win away to FC Cincinnati, but most recently they were dismantled 3-0 by the San Jose Earthquakes in a California Clasico on Saturday night in Stanford.
Though TFC has won the last three encounters, including a 4-0 on their last visit to Carson, the Galaxy and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be eager to get back on the right foot come Thursday night's encounter.
Most recently, the two sides played out a wild 5-3 last September at BMO Field, where Toronto got the upper hand, despite Ibrahimovic's roundhouse volley.
Leading the side with 11 goals through 14 appearances, Zlatan, like Wayne Rooney last match, is one that will have to be watched closely.
“With either of them, if they have position on you, you shouldn't be trying to win ball because they're both incredibly strong, very technical, so they can spin you, can turn you,” cautioned Vanney. “If you guess or overplay, they'll use it against you and make plays happen.”
LA's next highest scoring is defender Daniel Steres with three goals. Both Jonathan dos Santos and Uriel Antuna, who have two goals each, will miss the match still involved in Gold Cup action with Mexico.
“We've got to be smart, make the right choices. We've got to eliminate service,” stressed the Toronto coach. “He's an enormous target in the box and they are the number one crossing team in the league, so we've got to prevent crosses and make it difficult for them to find him, whether that is shielding him, trying to prevent entry passes. If we can minimize touches, that's better.”
“But the challenge with a player like that is he only needs one touch to put it in the back of the net,” added Vanney. “That's the kind of efficiency he has as a striker, similar to Rooney. They're such high level player technically and such smart players, it's not like they need a bunch of chances to hurt you, they only need a couple. We've got to make sure that whenever they get those touches, they're not in dangerous areas and we do our best to make it difficult for the rest of his teammates to find him.”