TORONTO – From the summer grind to the playoff push.
The final phase of the 2019 MLS regular season picks up on Saturday when Toronto FC head to Harrison, New Jersey for a date with the New York Red Bulls.
Cupboard stocked with the recent additions, TFC will be looking to build off a win over FC Cincinnati last weekend and continue a trend that has seen them win three of their last four.
“There is a lot of confidence in the group,” said Greg Vanney midweek. “The level in sessions has gone up three notches over the last few weeks. There is competition, depth, in every position. Young players with a lot of dynamic ability, veteran players with a lot of savvy and smart. There's a nice mix.”
“Our guys are focusing on performance, connecting as a group, continuing to progress and get better with each game,” added Vanney. “At the same time understanding that results are pivotal in each.”
With the addition of Nicolas Benezet on Tuesday and Erickson Gallardo nearing debut, the competition for places in Vanney's starting XI is heating up. Only Alejandro Pozuelo, already on his way to New York following Wednesday's MLS All-Star game against Atletico Madrid, was absent.
“Today was a good day,” said Jozy Altidore. “We missed Pozuelo, but to have a full group of guys out there has been good. Competition for spots has been there, everybody is pushing each other, so it's really positive. It's a good atmosphere going into this last third of the season.”
Thursday saw both of the most recent additions partake in their first full session with the team. Neither will be rushed into the lineup, however.
“We'll see,” replied Vanney when asked if Benezet could feature against New York. “He won't start. I'll have to make a decision whether we consider him in the 18, but I want him to go with us, just to be in the environment, see what an MLS game looks like up close and in person, get to know teammates, all that stuff.”
The Frenchman arrived on Tuesday, without his luggage, and got a brief glimpse of the BMO Training Ground on Wednesday before completing medicals.
He was introduced properly on Thursday.
“I'm tired because yesterday I slept very few hours, but I'm very happy to be here,” said Benezet, who had been in preseason training with EA Guingamp ahead of the loan. “Very excited and I hope to play this weekend.”
“I hope,” reiterated Benezet, eager to get onto the pitch. “I spoke with the coach, the coach is the boss, so I wait.”
Gallardo, whose signing was announced on July 9, has yet to feature, but he too is almost ready.
“He looks good,” said Vanney. “Between now and next week, he's going to be up and running, playing some games.”
Altidore is curious to see what the new recruits can add: “That's the interesting part. If these pieces can settle in quickly, then the team becomes more dynamic, you can interchange positions more. All in all, you become more difficult to defend.”
“That's the hope, that's the idea,” said Altidore. “Hopefully we can jell enough to make a push to win MLS Cup, not only get into the playoffs.”
Reinforcements come at an intriguing time for TFC.
The Eastern Conference is densely packed with seven points separating first place from eighth.
“It's wide open,” said Vanney. “Obviously, Philadelphia has been the most consistent team, but there are a lot of teams with their eyes set to track them down in this final stage. The way the season is set up we play a lot of each other down the stretch. There is going to be more movement than in the middle of the year.”
“There are teams that like us are going through different types of transitions,” continued Vanney. “Whether that's a coaching transition and a new philosophy: that's Atlanta a little a bit. Red Bulls lose a couple key players, Tyler Adams, which shifts their team. Others as well, Bruce [Arena] has come in and been able to stabilize the ship there, which puts [New England] right back into the mix.”
“There is a lot of evolving going on in the Eastern Conference and you can see that in the standings; how tight everything is,” added Vanney. “A lot of teams are still settling into their overall longer-term identity. Now with the second window closing, we've got a lot of the pieces in play. The goal is to attack the second half of the season and get as many points as possible for a run into the playoffs.”
Toronto's next seven matches are in conference.
That task will be assisted by the fact that Altidore is red hot, scoring goals in his last four matches to bring his season tally up to nine in 13 appearances.
“I'm just trying to go out and help the team win games, that's my only focus,” said Altidore, who has scored in a variety of ways in recent weeks, whether from a dead-ball, a deft back-heel flick, or a curling effort from range. “I pride myself on trying to be a striker that can score every type of goal. Whether it's a header, a free-kick, playing a guy in with a through-ball, left-footed, a volley.”
“I like that. I enjoy strikers that can score multiple ways. That's a part of my game that I work on,” continued Altidore. “I don't want to be just the typical player that is just in the box, I want to score from everywhere.”
He will be looking to continue helping the team win on Saturday against the club where his professional career began – Altidore spent the first three seasons as a teenager with the Red Bulls.
“High-pressing, chaotic games,” summed up Altidore succinctly. “We've played them how many times now, so there should be no surprises there.”
Neatly, Red Bull, two points ahead, are one of the teams TFC are chasing.
And the two have met recently, with Toronto emerging victorious by a 3-1 scoreline at BMO Field on July 17 where Altidore scored the opener – that deft flick – after six minutes and Pozuelo added the second from the penalty spot before half-time.
New York would pull one back from Tom Barlow, but Ashtone Morgan refused to give up on a ball to close out the match in the 72nd minute.
“The game looked similar to what you would want,” recalled Vanney. “They were maybe a touch, on the road, less aggressive, but the games always look similar.”
“You've got to play fast, got to have solutions. If you break the press there is going to be space on the other side. It's a high-level engagement game and it's got tempo to it. We have to be prepared for that, even probably another notch at their place,” continued Vanney. “When they press harder there is even more space on the back side if you can break it.”
New York bounced back from that defeat with a 1-0 win away to Orlando City SC a few days later, but fell 3-2 at home on Saturday against Columbus Crew SC.
“Their last match against Columbus, they tried to be more aggressive and they ended up giving up a lot of chances on the other side – breakaways, balls in behind – and probably should have taken more goals,” observed Vanney. “For them, it's finding a balance between how aggressive their defending is going to be versus how calculated. That style isn't going to change, it's a matter of how extreme it is.”