TORONTO – Hot on the heels of a derby win over the Montreal Impact on Saturday, another foe awaits.
Toronto FC will look to keep rolling on Wednesday night when they host the New York Red Bulls at BMO Field in the first of three straight-home matches that will see out the month.
Having gotten 'the second half of the season' off with a big three points, there was a corresponding mood in training on Monday.
“I think [we can be one of the better teams in the league],” said Alejandro Pozuelo, who scored the game-winner against Montreal. “We have a really good team. Not only the 11 starters, we have also a good bench. Continue to work hard and we will see what happens in this 14 games.”
14 matches remain to determine what the Eastern Conference will look like heading into the MLS Cup Playoffs. The victory in Montreal was an 'important' one, according to Greg Vanney, but it is just the beginning, a starting point for the rest of the campaign.
“Whenever you come off a good win, there's a different feeling within the group, but it's recognizing what the factors were that enabled us to win,” stressed Vanney. “[They'll] be similar, but slightly different factors when you play the Red Bulls. A very different looking game. We've got to stay focused, lock in, be engaged all the time; the tempo will be a lot faster than it was the other night.”
For the first time in a long time, TFC have the full roster available for selection.
“It's great to have options,” smiled Vanney. “It also has its challenges because some guys are going to be disappointed. What's nice at training is we've got big numbers, guys competing, that helps to prepare for each game: the intensity level is high, the game is moving fast. It's nice.”
Vanney said he and the coaching staff have a sense of what their best XI is, but that form will play a role in selection and there is competition for places.
“Guys have to be playing at the expected level or the other guy plays,” warned Vanney. “It's not just a rotation to keep people healthy, there has got to be a healthy competition for minutes and spots. That keeps guys at the top of their game. That's what we need down the stretch.”
Chris Mavinga is feeling that competitive edge.
“It seems like a preseason squad because there are a lot of players. It's great,” said the defender. “I have to challenge myself to be better because I see we have more players that can play in my position. It will make everybody play better, this is good.”
While the win over Montreal put some wind in the sails, there were particulars to be improved upon, especially with the visit of the Red Bulls.
“We showed some discipline, in terms of shape and positioning. The game was very slow, especially in the first half, we need to find ways to get the ball moving faster, get our movement sharper and more collective,” detailed Vanney. “There were some good aspects of the first half where we were able to pen them back in their half, be in good positions to win balls. There were some loose turnovers that we've got to really be careful about when we go into Wednesday because the Red Bulls are looking for [those] to hurt you.”
“Clean up the unnecessary turnovers,” emphasized Vanney. “There will always be turnovers, it's about how and where that's important. We looked better in terms of relationships on the field, now it's just picking up tempo and some of the execution stuff to get a little cleaner. We have a structure to work with as we move forward.”
New York, who enter the match on the back of a derby win themselves, albeit one with a healthy dollop of controversy as the winning goal came from a disputed restart, will pose a familiar, yet distinct, challenge.
“I expect a different game,” foresaw Mavinga, comparing it to the match against the Impact. “They're mobile, they press a lot. They're a better team than Montreal. We have to be more focused; put more on the field.”
For Vanney, it is 'the level of engagement' that an opposition like the Red Bulls demands that will be the emphasis.
“A team that wants to make the game fast, you've got to be locked in, transition quick. Winning the transition game is a big part of what they're trying to do, so we've got to be mentally and physically ahead of the game as much as possible so you're prepared to make plays, otherwise you end up chasing.”
“Take care of the ball under pressure, make good decisions, be able to play. Whatever spaces open up when guys step out, we've got to be ready to use those, create problems for them,” listed Vanney. “It was interesting watching their game: NYCFC got the better part of first half and the Red Bulls were able to shift it in the second half. We've got to put the game as much in our vision, not let them disrupt the flow of what we're trying to do.”
The Red Bulls are unbeaten in two, having won 2-1 at home over NYCFC on Sunday and drawn 3-3 away to Atlanta United FC on July 3. Curiously, in the two away matches they've played since the return from the Gold Cup break, New York have conceded seven goals.
Midfielder Daniel Royer leads the side with seven goals and six assists this season. Playmaker Kaku has three goals and three assists, and though Bradley Wright-Phillips has just two goals to his name in ten appearances in 2019, he loves playing Toronto: the Englishman has nine goals in 13 matches against TFC.
There is a new name amongst that familiar group leading the way for the Red Bulls with six goals through 13 appearances: Brian White, a 23-year-old New Jersey-native, who was selected in the 2018 MLS Superdraft.
“Relentless worker,” assessed Vanney. “There are some similarities between him and Wright-Phillips: their willingness and relentlessness to run, on both sides of the ball; to help lead the press defensively, but also to constantly create this threat ahead of the attack.”
“One of those guys that is always demanding the attention of centre-backs,” summed up Vanney. “Bradley is the same way. The energy they have up top between those two guys requires attention. If [White] is on the field, we'll have to deal with him. If Wright-Phillips is on, we'll have to deal with him. Neither of them are going to make it easy.”
The Red Bulls won the last two regular season meetings, both last season – most recently a 2-0 in September at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey – and were victorious in the second leg at BMO Field in the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, the day of the infamous Brouhaha at BMO, but Toronto had done enough in the away leg to advance on aggregate.
With a 1-0 win in July 2018, the Red Bulls have taken points from two of their last three regular season visits.
Pozuelo, who watched the New York derby expects a more cultured Red Bull to emerge from that brawl.
“It was more a game with power because it was a derby, everybody fight, they didn't play too much football. It will be a different game with us,” said the Spaniard. “They have a very good team, they stay in blocks, have power, go in counterattacks, it will be difficult. We know we have three games at home, we need to take the most points possible.”