With the group stage portion of the MLS is Back Tournament in the rear view, expect another level to be reached when the Knockout Rounds kick off this weekend.
For Toronto FC that means another date with NYCFC – the two will meet in a Round of 16 clash on Sunday night at 8:30 pm at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida.
The two are very familiar, both from regular season encounters and a few MLS Cup Playoff clashes over the past few seasons.
TFC bounced NYCFC from the postseason in 2019, winning 2-1 at Citi Field an Eastern Conference Semifinal on the strength of an Alejandro Pozuelo brace, including a late, game-winning penalty kick. And in 2017 it was a Sebastian Giovinco hat-trick in the second leg that led the way in a 7-0 aggregate victory for TFC at that same stage.
Revenge will be on the mind for the New York City-based side. And with every team having gotten three matches under their belts, it will be intense.
“Teams are getting a little bit more fit, teams are getting sharper,” began Greg Vanney. “With all the games being at night the intensity level is going to be higher. That's also ramped up by the fact that it's a knockout situation just like in the playoffs, the intensity level goes higher.”
“We have to raise our level and the speed at which we're doing things and staying more connected,” he urged. “We've got to get it to another level if we're going to continue through this tournament and really try to win it. That's the one thing that we have to be mindful of as we enter this next phase.”
Having drawn twice and beaten their rivals, the Montreal Impact, to top Group C, Toronto feels like their trajectory is true.
“There's more there for us. We have another level or two still to get to,” foresaw Michael Bradley. “Part of that is time, getting a few more games under our belt. Obviously, the circumstances under which we played the first three group games were difficult with two 9 am games and three games in eight days.”
“We’re excited now that we've had a little bit of a chance to catch our breath,” he conveyed. “Physically we're coming around in a good way. The fact that they're all night games from here on out is big. There's been a lot of things that we feel good about, but we understand that as you move into the knockout stage of a tournament like this the intensity will get cranked up a little bit and we have to be ready.”
After four months without a game it was always going to take a bit of time to build into the competition. It’s about taking steps forward with every 90 minutes.
“Each game you keep on improving a little bit while still reaching your team goals and winning the group,” Omar Gonzalez laid out. “We have a good group of experienced players. We work well together, with and without the ball. If you aren't organized, if you don't work together, if you aren't tactically sound, then it's going to be pretty hard to advance in this tournament under these conditions. We've been pretty good thus far, but there's still room for improvement and we're looking to keep on improving.”
While Toronto controlled their own future, progression to the next round for NYCFC hung in the balance.
A pair of losses in the first two matches – 1-0 against the Philadelphia Union and 3-1 against hosts Orlando City SC – were followed by a 1-0 win over Inter Miami FC in their Group A finale on Monday, leaving results elsewhere to determine their fate.
While new coach Ronny Delia is still imprinting his vision onto the side, the core identity of the group has not changed.
“We know them well,” said Bradley. “Obviously the coach has changed this year and with that some of their ideas and the way they go about things are a little bit different, but it's still a lot of the same players and it's still a team that has the identity of wanting to play football.”
“We've had a lot of big games with them over the last handful of years,” he reminded. “And we certainly understand we're going to need to be at our best to beat them on Sunday night.”
And the two have already met this season with Toronto winning 1-0 on March 7 at BMO Field – Ifunanyachi Achara scored the game-winner late.
“For me, it always starts with they have a very good team, they have very good players,” summed up Vanney. “Players who can make plays and who can hurt you. Systematically they haven't changed a ton. Positionally very smart, their movement is very good. They haven't maybe connected as well so far in this season and in this tournament as they are capable of, but at any point a team with that kind of quality can find that rhythm and can be dangerous.”
“We have to be diligent about how we defend, make sure that we're collective, we've got to move the ball fast, we've got to raise our intensity level. We have to do better than we have done in the games leading up to this, and I think we will,” anticipated the coach. “We're a little more rested, our fitness and our legs are under us. We have a lot of respect for them as a team and that's part of what has enabled us to be successful: that all of us have such a high level of respect for that group that we go out and we know we have to play our best to get a result.”
Do not let recent results mislead. Those games mean nothing in this survive-and-advance clash.
“Not every result was what they would have hoped for in the group stage,” referenced Bradley.
“When it's one game anything can happen,” he cautioned. “It's important to always have complete respect for every opponent, regardless of the form that they've shown in the tournament up until this point.”
“We're pretty honest with ourselves,” Bradley added. “Understanding that there's been a lot of good things through three games, but if we want to continue to move along, then we have to raise our level because we know everybody else will.”
There is a trophy and a prize on the line after all.
“The Champions League is always a priority at our club,” said Bradley. “It's a big tournament, a special tournament, a tournament that we have some history with and so the opportunity to get ourselves in is important and exciting. There's no two ways about that.”
“More than just Champions League though is the idea that this is a tournament. There's a trophy. And we want to win. We want to be the team that's standing at the end,” added the captain. “We've been a club over the last handful of years that has been consistent in how we have gone after every game and every trophy. And this is certainly no different.”