TORONTO – The July portion of the schedule comes to an end on Saturday with the visit of FC Cincinnati.
As the 2019 MLS regular season enters the home stretch, Toronto FC have 12 matches remaining. Both August and September see five games each and then Decision Day comes on October 6 with Columbus Crew SC coming to BMO Field.
Needless to say, each game here on out will be crucial to playoff positioning.
In the Eastern Conference, ten points separate first place from eighth with the top seven making the playoffs. Ten of Toronto's remaining games come against in-conference opposition with a home match against the Colorado Rapids and a trip to Supporters' Shield favourites LAFC the only Western games ahead.
Having gotten through a three-game week with wins away to the Montreal Impact and at home to the New York Red Bulls, TFC dropped the third game against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.
One point out of a playoff spot, Toronto are eager to catapult up the table.
“We know what all the teams look like that are around us, we're confident in ability and our team. We know the task that is in front of us,” said Vanney. “Our eyes are set on one of those playoff spots where we can play at home – we'll see how we can get there. We could be in a better spot, through various ways we've managed to drop some points along the way.”
“Having said that, we're coming to full health, we're coming back together, we've encountered and managed through what was going to be a really difficult part of our schedule starting with the five games in 15 days then transitioning directly into the Gold Cup,” continued Vanney. “We got to the international window with some additions. We've gone through the part of our schedule that we had asterisked as a real grind.”
“We're through that, we're right there on the cusp and everybody is reachable,” added Vanney. “We just need to get results, one game at a time, perform, and keep getting ourselves better each game we play.”
And they are finally fully fit – only Erickson Gallardo not quite ready to debut – for the first time in what seems like years.
“It's great because when everybody is healthy there is that competition at every single position, training is that much more competitive, that much more focused,” said defender Drew Moor, himself ready to go. “It's been a while, seasons, since we've had that. To have everybody in, going for it in training, translates to very good vibes and guys focused and ready to go at the weekend.”
The quest resumes on Saturday when expansion side Cincinnati comes to town.
Their inaugural season in MLS has been difficult for the newcomers. Having taken points in four of their first six matches, they would lose the next five, prompting a coaching change with Yoann Damet replacing Alan Koch at the start of May on an interim basis.
They would end that losing skid with a win against Montreal, only to embark on a new one of six matches. That has turned a bit in recent weeks with Cincinnati winning two-straight at the start of the month – against Houston and away to the Chicago Fire – but two more losses followed against D.C. United and a resurgent New England Revolution, both at Nippert Stadium in Ohio.
Toronto expects the visitors to be cautious in their approach come Saturday.
“They haven't shown to be an overly-aggressive defensive team,” said Vanney. “They've got two, between Nick [Hagglund] and [Kendall] Waston, two centre-backs who are very comfortable in the air, try to protect their goal, keep their blocks tight and play on transition more times than not.”
“Within that, you end up with a fair amount of possession and you've got to figure out ways to break them down and create opportunities. It's not a formula we're unfamiliar with in our league,” added Vanney. “We've got to be efficient with the ball and, one of the things we didn't do last game, is stay organized behind the ball, make sure we're accountable, communicating and organized, sharp and ready. Do that in this game and take advantage of the situations we create.”
Forward Kekuta Manneh and midfielder Allan Cruz lead the side with three goals apiece, while Emmanuel Ledesma and Darren Mattocks each have two.
Amongst the many familiar names on the Cincinnati roster is former Red Hagglund, who spent the first five seasons of his MLS career with TFC. He was traded to his hometown club in January.
Vanney called him: “One of the best guys that I've ever spent time with; wonderful family guy. Happy he's home. I'm interested to hear how his little one is doing. It'll be great to see Nick.”
His aerial presence has been replaced by the addition of Omar Gonzalez, but the TFC coach did admit they miss Nick's 'boundless energy.'
“No matter what day, what scenario, he brings another level of energy to the group. A good guy with a great bubbly personality. It makes everybody smile and keeps you light,” continued Vanney. “You miss the person as much as anything because he's that good of a guy.”
Moor too is looking forward to seeing his old teammate.
“Nick and I still keep in touch, we very close here,” said Moor. “It'll be fun to see him, hopefully spend a bit of time together.”
“On the field it will be a battle: we want to beat their team, just like he'll want to beat ours,” continued Moor. “He's one of those under-appreciated guys: phenomenal in the locker room, such a positive outlook on things, brings guys with him, just a great influence.”
“Certainly somebody that we've missed, but on Saturday night he'll be on the other side,” added Moor. “We want to make Saturday night about ourselves, try to dictate the game and then we'll have some fun with him afterwards.”