TORONTO – The rest of the season begins on Saturday.
Toronto FC will kickoff the next phase of the 2019 MLS campaign on Saturday with a tasty one, an away match against the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo.
With 15 games remaining on the season, Greg Vanney finally has a full complement of options at his disposal. Between injuries, international duty, departures and arrivals, it has been a year of inconsistency.
There are still a few lingering injury issues, still the possibility of further roster machinations, but the side will be looking to build consistency from here.
“It feels like a mini-preseason,” said Vanney on Thursday after training. “Between adding the guys who have come back from injury, the guys back from international duty, adding the new faces we've picked up in the window, we're trying to squeeze together a quick preseason, to reintroduce and reconnect everybody to our vision moving forward.”
“It's a fresh start into the next part of the season,” continued Vanney. “The quicker we can come together and all get back on the same page, the smoother this process can start to happen. That's something we're really pushing towards as a group.”
“We've had three good days of training, today was a bit of game prep and tomorrow we'll finalize some things,” outlined the coach. “It's never the same until you actually go play against somebody. And to play against Montreal at their place is always a challenge. The 401 Derby, we know what that means. The importance of that always brings the concentration level a little bit higher.”
This week saw a trio of new faces at the BMO Training Ground.
Omar Gonzalez arrived following the conclusion of the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup. Venezuelan winger Erickson Gallardo's signing was announced, as was the acquisition of forward Patrick Mullins in a trade with Columbus Crew SC that saw Jordan Hamilton head to Ohio.
Add in the rest of the returning players from the Gold Cup and the new-found confidence in those who stepped up in their absences and Vanney has been pleased with the intensity level in training this week.
“[That], for me, is driven by guys who are competing, who believe that they can be out there,” explained Vanney. “Guys who weren't playing a lot at the beginning of the year, but have through this stretch, have a healthy mindset that helps challenge everybody.”
“I said back in 2016 when we were going through the playoffs that our training sessions, our games leading up to the games, were more intense than the games themselves. That's what we need in this environment right now,” urged Vanney. “We need the competitive level inside our training sessions to be every bit as challenging and as intense as our games on the weekend. And some of the little things that have not gone our way will start going our way just through preparation, hard work, and the intensity of the sessions.”
That hope pairs neatly with a similarity to how the 2016 season played out: a slow start building into the club's first MLS Cup Final appearance.
“Our season so far is pretty reminiscent of 2016 in some ways,” observed Vanney. “It didn't get off to a great start, a lot of guys had to step up and grind through the middle of the year, then we came back together at the end and went on a great run.”
If that is to be the case, there would be no better place to kick start that effort than away to Montreal, the scene of one of iconic moments from that campaign, where having gone down 3-0 in the opening period of the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final, Toronto found some life, pulling back two away goals, the series culminating in the pouring rain back at BMO Field.
The Impact enter the match seven points and three spots ahead of TFC in the standings, having played two additional matches.
Montreal dropped their last two in MLS play – 3-2 at home to Minnesota United FC last Saturday and 2-1 away to Atlanta United FC – having returned from the Gold Cup break with a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers at the end of June.
And midweek they drew 2-2 with Canadian Premier League side York9 FC at York Lions Stadium.
Even without the services of Ignacio Piatti, who looks set to miss out with injury, Remi Garde's side is always “difficult to play against,” according to Vanney.
“They started off the year in more of a 4-1-4-1; they've had some troubles conceding goals, tried to sure that up with the 5-4-1 or 3-4-3,” observed Vanney. “They're better in possession, in better areas of the field that creates some uncertainty for teams defensively, but their bread and butter still is in the transition because of their interest to protect themselves and protect their goal.”
Montreal has won the last two encounters at home in league play, both in 2018 – 2-0 in October and 1-0 in March – while Toronto won the only 2018 contest at BMO Field by a 3-1 scoreline.
Saphir Taider leads the side with seven goals and three assists through 19 appearances, while Nigerian international Orji Okwonwko, on loan from Italian side Bolgona FC, has four goals in 16 appearances.
“It becomes a lot of the same things for us. I say this every single week,” repeated Vanney. “We've got to be good with the ball, we can't turn it over and put ourselves into bad transition situations when they're sitting in tight blocks. We've got to be patient without being too patient, where we just pass the ball around and lose it. We've got to stay aggressive, find and set up our moments.”
“If they sit deep, pin them back, if they open up and press us, play between and dissect them,” added Vanney. “We have to play 90 minutes of mistake free soccer. We've had some good games over the last few and it's been that one or two plays that have undone us.”
It is possible that one of the new Reds makes their debut come Saturday.
Gonzalez is certainly hoping he does: “I'm looking forward to it.”
“That's the best way to start, with the rivalry game, get thrown in,” relished the defender. “It's going to be a good game. I'm interested to see what the rivalry is like. It will be fun to win there.”