TORONTO – Having rounded the corner, the MLS regular season is entering the home stretch.
Toronto FC will play the first of the six matches remaining on Saturday when they travel to Ohio to face FC Cincinnati.
They know what is at stake: a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“From here on out it’s about playing as though you’re in the playoffs,” said Omar Gonzalez on Thursday. “Every game is a championship game in a sense. We have to find a way to go away and get points.”
“We’ve had a good week of training, everyone is confident. We’ve had a good run of games leading up to this one,” continued the defender. “If we put everything we’ve been working on and execute, we should have a good day.”
It’s going to be a busy month.
Along with the six league matches on the docket, TFC will face the Montreal Impact in the two legs of the Canadian Championship final with matches every weekend and midweek for the next three weeks.
“We’re going into a stretch of games that are all very important and all coming quickly on top of each other,” summarized Greg Vanney. “We’re going to look at it as one game at a time, try to get points or the result we need out of each one, and we’ll assess as we move into the next one.”
First up is Cincinnati, who have been eliminated from post-season contention, making them a tricky opponent.
“You’ve got to be careful going into these types of games because they don’t have anything to lose; they’re playing for pride. They can be a lot more reckless, a lot more offensive,” cautioned Nick DeLeon. “These games are never easy. We have to go into it with the right mentality: that we’re going to get the job done. If we do that, we’ll have a good foot forward. You’ve got to be careful, they’re going to let it all hang out.”
In the professional game, there is never a meaningless game.
“Players are playing for their future, for their right to be on the team, to not be traded, to get another contract,” reminded Gonzalez. “Although they’re out of the playoffs, they’re still playing for something. They want to show this coach that they deserve to be there and so they’re going to play well.”
That, as well as the fact that a new coach, Ron Jans, was installed at the beginning of August throws an element of the unknown into just what the opposition will look like come game time.
“You’re never quite sure what you’re going to see. They could try some younger guys, try some guys they want to evaluate; could do a lot of different things, try different shapes, system, anything. Teams become more unpredictable in that way,” explained Vanney. “But the points are the same. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
“We primarily need to focus on ourselves, continue to do things well that we have been doing well lately,” continued Vanney. “We’re in a discussion of details now, which is nice, so we’re working on little things that we think we can tighten up.”
Unbeaten in four, Vanney has liked what he’s seen from his side in recent outings: “The team has really come around the last month.”
“Guys are understanding their roles, understanding the vision of what we’re trying to do since adding Nico [Benezet] and [Erickson] Gallardo, getting guys back from the Gold Cup. All those things have settled in now,” continued the coach. “Working on specifics versus broader things is where you want to be this time of year, so you can really emphasize execution and results-oriented playing.”
Draws against Orlando City SC, Columbus Crew SC, and the New England Revolution left points on the table, but provided a certain clarity to the side.
Gonzalez points to the Crew SC match in particular: “After the Columbus game, we took a real, hard look at ourselves and asked what kind of team do we want to be.”
“From that point on we worked things out on the training field and since [then] we’ve been looking pretty good, organized, together as a group, and a real idea of how to approach each game,” he continued. “Everything has been building up; we’re right at the cusp of seeing something great.”
DeLeon feels the same: “Definitely [more confident].”
“Some of the offensive stuff is still a little lacking, but the fact that we’re all together as a group – offensively, defensively we’re doing things together right now,” he continued. “As long as that is the standard, we’re in a really good spot moving forward. Those goals will come.”
And Vanney wants to see the same approach from his side as they enter this home stretch.
“The same type of effort, performance, stay connected, make sure that we’re moving together as a group, and having that mentality on the road of being difficult to play against as a starting position,” detailed the coach. “And then taking care of ball and trying to do the things we always do attacking wise.”
Getting results on the road is never easy, but Gonzalez has a “good formula” in mind.
“Be solid defensively and when you get chances, take them,” simplified the centre-back. “We are a good team, if we work together defensively, make sure they don’t get a sniff, we have the quality that we’re going to get opportunities in front of goal. And when we do, we have to strike, we have to score.”
Toronto won the first and only previous meeting between the sides 2-1 at BMO Field on July 27 with DeLeon flicking an Omar Gonzalez past the Cincinnati keeper and Jozy Altidore netting a screamer to double the lead before Emmanuel Ledesma pulled one back for the visitors.
Having missed the game in New England, Altidore looks set to return. That has Gonzalez excited: “You never know what greatness is going to come out of Jozy.”
Those big moments are nice, but for the rest of the 90 minutes and the season, it will be about having “that playoff mentality” according to Vanney.
“Over the course of games, you have to do what the game tells you to make sure you position yourself to get a result,” levelled the TFC coach, stressing the need to be “professional” in how they go about navigating individual matches and the stretch ahead.
“Not ideological in our approach, but professional; take what games give us. Every opposition is going to have their moments, when they [do] we need to find the right solutions to end their moments, to shift game subtly back into the way we want it to look,” explained Vanney. “That to me is when we’re at our best: recognizing what the game is giving us, taking it, and putting it in our favour.”
This time of year “games mean a little more.”
“The playoffs are right around the corner, that’s what makes them different,” levelled DeLeon. “There’s a little more urgency, games matter as far as placement, home seeds, all that gets magnified this time of the season.”