TORONTO – Fresh off a Canadian Championship series win over Ottawa Fury FC, MLS action resumes for Toronto FC Saturday when they travel to Ohio to face Columbus Crew SC.
The match concludes a spell of five games in 15 days, but also kicks off a crucial stretch of the MLS regular season.
TFC have nine games left, six of which will be played before cup action resumes mid-September. After Columbus, the Montreal Impact, who Toronto will also meet in the Voyageurs Cup final, come to town, and then the side embarks on a three-match road trip with stops in New England, Cincinnati, and New York City where they will face NYCFC.
Every point going forward is crucial, starting in Columbus.
“We have to approach the game with the right mentality,” stressed Greg Vanney after training on Thursday. “Our objective is to win, but understand we're on the road, we've got to play smart, be together. We'll approach it like every game. We understand the stakes continue to rise with each game. We've got to go there and execute.”
Echoed Patrick Mullins: “Same mentality, same preparation, same approach.”
“Our team knows what we're trying to do, we know our structure, know our setup. We just want to make sure that on the night, we're fully operating to give us the best chance to win and go on a run these last nine games,” continued the forward who arrived from Columbus in a trade on July 11. “Everyone is one the same page; the mindset is that we've got business to do.”
Mullins arrived in a swap that saw TFC homegrown striker Jordan Hamilton head in the other direction. With five appearances, two in the cup and three in the league, under his belt, Mullins has grown accustomed to his new side, finding the back of the net in the last two matches.
“Patrick has been great,” said Vanney. “Every time he's been on the field he gets more comfortable with group, with the tendencies. Two goals in two games since settling in – he runs hard, plays physical, he does the things you need a forward to do. He's looking forward to playing against Columbus.”
Though the teams have yet to meet this season, TFC and Crew SC are familiar foes having met some 33 times in league play and twice in the playoffs over the years. The two vie for the Trillium Cup with the return leg in Toronto set for Decision Day on October 6.
“They're a good team, a lot of good players, a team whose core has been together for a while. We have a lot of respect for them,” said Michael Bradley. “This time of year games are never easy. It's a big game for both teams. We've got to make sure we go there with the right mentality; ready to put the game on our terms and come away with a good result.”
In their first season under Caleb Porter with Gregg Berhalter having taken on the U.S. Men's National Team gig in the off-season, Columbus sit outside the playoff places, but are unbeaten in their last five matches having drawn at home against FC Cincinnati in the Ohio derby last weekend and taken a point from their trip to high-flying San Jose Earthquakes earlier this month.
Federico Higuain is out for the season having suffered an ACL injury in May, sparing TFC the threat he often poses and changing how the Crew go about things at times, but still there are many similarities to the team that thundered back to a 3-3 draw in the last meeting between the sides after conceding three in the opening hour.
“There are some similarities to their past,” observed Vanney. “You've got [Wil] Trapp and Artur in the middle, both very good players, very mobile – Trapp will drop into the back-line sometimes. There's more versatility in what they do – I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. They were pretty rigid and clear with Gregg and now there's more freedom on the field.”
“Without Higuain they're a different team,” continued Vanney. “They have [Pedro] Santos in there, he's a runner so he creates some issues, and Gyasi [Zardes] is always stretching the opposition. They're still a handful, a team with good players and good qualities, more fluid than in the past.”
Zardes leads the side with nine goals, while Santos is a close second with eight to his name.
Mullins is “pretty familiar” with this weekend's opposition.
“Some of the personnel have changed even since I departed, but I'm seeing the ideas, the things Caleb preaches on a day-to-day basis, starting to show in their play,” he continued. “They're going to come at us determined to win at home, show some of the things they've been working on and improving on. In the back of their mind, they think they can be pushing for a playoff spot too.”
“We want to go in as TFC, put our stamp on the game,” added Mullins. “We know who the opponent is, what they'll present. We're excited for the match, confident to go in and get a result.”
Columbus is unbeaten in two against Toronto, but Toronto have taken draws from their last two visits and points from their three trips to face the Crew.
With the season entering the final stretch and the Eastern Conference a jumbled mess where six points separate third from ninth and three teams, including Toronto, level on points in competition for the final playoff spot, it will be a wild two months with plenty of twists and turns.
“It's an important time of year,” said Bradley. “So much of the league is within a handful of points. If you can put together a good few weeks, have a period where you play well, come away with good results, then you shoot yourself up the table real quick. On the flips side, you can drop down.”
Finally complete, fully healthy, Vanney's side is braced for the challenge.
“We recognize the scenario,” said Vanney. “We're at crunch time. A lot of important games ahead of us, each one we've got to approach with the right mentality and in the right way.”
Bradley described the team as, “excited; motivated.”
“Still nine games left, more than a quarter of the season. We understand you get to this time of year, the magnifying glass gets put on that much closer. We've got to be better, be sharper, understand that every play can make an even bigger difference,” continued the TFC captain. “But we feel good about the group that we have and we're excited about the opportunities that are going to be there for us as we move into the end of the season.”