Set the alarms, get that coffee brewing, tomorrow is another early morning.
Toronto FC will kickoff their third and final group stage match of the MLS is Back Tournament on Tuesday morning at 9 am when they face the New England Revolution.
Some 180 minutes into the competition, TFC feel like they are on the right trajectory.
“The group looks pretty good,” said Mark Delgado on Sunday. “Everyone knows this group and we all know each other. We'll fight to the end. We leave it all out there.”
With a 2-2 draw against D.C. United and a 4-3 win over the Montreal Impact in the opening two matches, Toronto are all but assured of progression to the knockout rounds.
Greg Vanney looked back at the two performances.
“We had a good first half the first game. We were very much in control, well connected,” he began. “The second half, less so. Too many mistakes in the back, getting disconnected in our defensive work. That happened again the other night, where our timing of trying to move together as a group and to control things defensively hasn't been great.”
At the start of a ‘new season’, in difficult summer-in-Florida conditions, facing quick turnarounds, early start times, and life in the bubble, it’s all part of the process as teams return to play after four months.
Managing all those factors is at the forefront of Vanney’s mind. Whether to make wholesale changes, giving some guys rest and other minutes or maintain continuity is just another consideration in the balance.
“Our group still needs to mold together as this event continues if we're going to have a chance to win it. Maintain some continuity, introduce some new players, while still rotating a bit to give some guys the opportunity to freshen up their legs, but also still trying to get guys to maximum fitness so that as we push through this we can continue to look for our best form and best ability,” he considered. “All the little things that we're trying to work through while we're here.”
“The resilience side of it, we've gritted things out, we've worked through times that weren't perfect and we've obviously had some very, very good moments, but we're still working towards that collective 90 minute game that we haven't hit yet,” Vanney continued. “Not many teams have, but we haven't hit it yet for sure and that's what we're striving for as we go to the next game. We're trying to build on each one.”
One player who has hit the ground running is Alejandro Pozuelo, who has five assists through two matches.
Calling both outings “good games,” Pozuelo was adamant: “We are ready to try to win this tournament.”
The Spanish midfielder is looking particularly spry after his epic exertions last season, playing both a European and MLS season.
“I feel better than last year. I feel more comfortable in the game,” explained Pozuelo. “Sometimes last year I felt like I played a lot of games. This year I feel very good.”
“In the quarantine time, a difficult period, I tried to work hard at home and on the team personality,” he continued – Pozuelo was an avid texter during the lockdown, taking advantage of the time away to strengthen the off-field relationships. “I feel very good. I try to help the team in the defensive [actions], I try to run, I try to stay in [the team] shape when the coach wants, and when I have the ball, I know I have the quality to do what I want.”
TFC will be looking for more magic from his boots against the Revolution on Tuesday.
Tied atop Group C with four points each, both Toronto and New England beat Montreal and drew with D.C. - the winner will take the top seed into the Round of 16.
Under Bruce Arena, one thing is certain about the Revs according to Vanney: “They'll play to win.”
“Bruce is not usually a guy that is going to overly rotate his squad. They've got a few guys who didn't play a lot of minutes in the last game who are guys that he's relied upon in the past,” he continued, referencing Diego Fagundez and Andrew Farrell as players who could pop into the lineup. “I don't think he'll make any big changes.”
“They'll play to get a result, to position themselves in the best possible way, as will we,” Vanney added. “And his teams are always organized.”
“The group that they have now is quite aggressive: [Gustavo] Bou is an aggressive player to goal, [Carles] Gil is obviously crafty and a playmaker, and [Cristian] Penilla is a runner. Their front four are a handful and they're busy. And they got [Brandon] Bye, who is going up and down on the right side. I don't think a lot of that will change for them,” he detailed. “What we need to do is try to hurt them on the other side, try to maintain possession.”
“These 9 o'clock games are very unique. The night games have a lot of tempo to them, the morning games, not so much and so all the little things matter. Taking care of the ball, being in possession, not resting at the wrong times, making sure guys are staying focused and locked in and connected,” Vanney reiterated. “These the morning games really expose any of those little weaknesses, so we want to make sure that we stay engaged. This will be their first morning [game], our second. I don't know if that will play a factor, but our guys have been getting up and training at 8 am every morning, so we're kind of used to it. We'll see if that plays any role in the game as we get there.”
Both Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Osorio were in full training on Sunday, but what role, if any, they will play on Tuesday remains to be seen.
Despite both sides being set to advance, this will be no dead-rubber. Plenty is at stake.
“As far as the event itself is concerned it’s maybe an extra couple days of rest, which are pretty big here given the heat, humidity and all that. You get to prepare a little bit longer for your opponent, that's useful. I don't know if getting a third seed versus a first seed at this point – and it's MLS, every team is difficult, every team you've got to play well to get the results,” reasoned Vanney. “It’s the points that go towards the regular season. [Still no] real clarity as to what it's going to look like, but we're trying to acquire as many of those points while we can in this early stage.”
This tournament has shown, as Toronto knows well, “You’ve got to finish strong,” stressed Vanney.
“That's one of the key things here: you’ve got to set yourself up and you’ve got to finish strong because the last 15-20 minutes are where teams are winning and losing points in many of these games,” explained the coach. “Extra substitutions, fatigue, all these kinds of things.”
“It's been interesting because it's a new dynamic that we're not used to at the professional level,” he added, pointing specifically at the extra subs. “It's interesting to watch how different teams are going about it.”
Just another curveball for TFC.
But with success in the league, playoffs, and the Concacaf Champions League under their belt, it’s just another element to consider.
“All of that has been good experience for us,” said Delgado. “We've seen it all, we've been through it all.”
“Being in this bubble, being in our rooms most of the day and then coming out and playing in this heat, we've been through it, so it doesn't really take a toll on us,” he continued. “We know what we have to do at the end of the day. Stay connected as a team, and even more so off the field. When you get on the field you play football; that's what we do. That's what we do best. Games have been looking pretty good for us, we just need to see them out in the right way.”