TORONTO – Ten games remain.
Fresh off a 2-0 midweek away win over Ottawa Fury FC in the opening leg of their Canadian Championship semi-final series, Toronto FC returns home intent on climbing up the Eastern Conference standings.
That quest begins on Saturday when Orlando City SC comes to BMO Field, the third match in a run of five in 15 days.
“Everybody is locked in, looking forward to this next series of games, all of them very important,” said Greg Vanney after training on Friday. “Starting Wednesday in Ottawa – good result, good mentality, now we've got to carry that over to an important match this weekend.”
A familiar refrain was heard from one of the new faces.
“For me, it's about the next game: Orlando, and when we're done with that it's the cup game,” said Omar Gonzalez. “That's how we're going to take it: one game at a time.”
“Focus on now, start climbing, and make the playoffs,” simplified Gonzalez. “If we start getting too focused on what we might look like heading into the last two games, that's when you get into trouble. Just focus on Orlando.”
Midweek saw two of the other newcomers put in solid shifts as they acclimate to their new environments. Erickson Gallardo made his debut off the bench and Nicolas Benezet, who came on in the loss away to the New York Red Bulls last weekend, started.
“Erickson got some great minutes the other night, looked solid and ready,” observed Vanney. “Nico wants to get out there and make a difference. You could see him chasing, [doing] the work, to try to get the ball.”
Cabinet fully-stocked, Vanney has options at his disposal: “It's finding the right combinations on a given match: who is on the best form, who physically is ready to go. All these variables are in play. We've got a lot of good players competing with each other for those minutes.”
That competition for places and the intensity that comes with it will be required in the fierce contest that will be the Eastern Conference. Ten points separate East-leading Philadelphia Union from being outside the playoffs places. Five points separate fourth and a guaranteed home game from eighth.
Currently a point outside of the playoff places, making the most of the remaining home games will be vital.
“Home games are of the utmost importance,” stressed Gonzalez. “We have a lot of away games, so we need to take care of business at home and when we go away, pick up a point or three.”
“We have to put together complete performances,” continued the defender. “In our past few games it's been a tale of two halves. We need to be much better about that.”
Toronto has four games left at BMO Field before the dust settles.
“They're very important, we know that,” reiterated Richie Laryea. “Home games are crucial to pick up points. We've seen the schedule, they're all winnable games, we have the squad and depth to win them.”
Standing in their way on Saturday will be Laryea's former side, Orlando City – the winger turned full-back was selected 7th overall by Orlando in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft and spent three seasons with the club.
“It's nice to play against a former team,” said Laryea. “But I'm more concerned with getting three points.”
In his first full season with the club, having taken charge midway through 2018, James O'Connor will also be looking for his side to climb up the standings in these final ten matches – they currently sit three points behind TFC.
He has plenty of talent at his disposal: Nani leads the side with eight goals and eight assists, equalling his output is Canadian Tesho Akindele. Both Chris Mueller and Dom Dwyer have chipped in five apiece.
Add to that Orlando will be eager to respond to the 2-0 defeat Toronto handed them at their place on May 4 where Jonathan Osorio and Jay Chapman found the back of the net.
History is against them: TFC has won the last two at BMO Field and is unbeaten in the all-time series at home with four wins and a draw.
In this the pointy end of the season, it is about ability and desire. Saturday, and the rest of the season after it, will be a battle of wills.
“There is no doubt on this team,” said Gonzalez. “We have confidence in each other, in the coaching staff preparing us. At the end of the day it's about the attitude you come with on game day. Everyone is excited to play at home tomorrow, should be a great atmosphere. We just need to take care of business.”