TORONTO – There’s a feeling in the air.
In normal times, the flipping of the calendar from August to September would herald crunch time in the MLS regular season. These are not normal times, but the feeling remains.
Toronto FC will play their sixth and final match of the all-Canadian portion of the schedule on Wednesday night when they travel to Quebec to face the Montreal Impact.
What lies ahead for the rest of the season is unclear at the moment, plans are brewing, but what is plain is that with nine points from five matches in the battle for a ticket to the Canadian Championship Final TFC has one more chance to stake their claim.
“The air is cool outside which is a reminder that fall is upon us,” waxed Greg Vanney on a Zoom conference call on Tuesday. “The games always feel a little bigger and this is one where it's the last game and our last opportunity to impact this tournament. And so, for us, it's a final.”
Toronto took full points from their first three matches – two at BMO Field over the Vancouver Whitecaps and another away to Montreal – but since then have dropped a pair where they were on the front foot only to come away empty-handed.
A quirk in the scheduling sees the Impact and Whitecaps meet in the final two matches of the set with TFC on the sidelines. Montreal currently has six points and Vancouver three.
Then the MLS season will take some yet-to-be-announced form.
“As far as what's next, there seems to be some schedule formulating in front of us, but we still don't know exactly what that means for us – where we'll be living, training, playing – some of that stuff is still to be worked out,” commented Vanney. “This one is the conclusion of this phase and our last opportunity to impact this tournament and put ourselves in a position to play in another championship game.”
Despite the frustrating nature of the two defeats, the mood of the group is “good,” according to the coach.
“There's a sense of urgency, in terms of executing,” Vanney continued. “The performances in both games were solid. Statistically and also just looking at the performances, there's a lot of things that we can take out of it that are positive, that show that we’re controlling the matches, that we're creating opportunities.”
“We need to execute better in front of goal, but the bigger thing was defending set-pieces – three of four goals that we've given up in the last two games have been off of first or second phase set-pieces,” he highlighted. “Games coming fast and furious, we had to carve out some more time to work on that over the last couple days to make sure that everybody is aware of their assignments.”
Without their captain, who was injured in the last meeting with Montreal, the club has had to adjust.
“One of the pieces is Michael [Bradley], who is a leader on set-pieces, setting our line, dropping our line, connecting guys, stuff like that. He is not in there, so making sure that that role is filled, that everybody is on the same page, and that we're moving together at the right time,” explained Vanney. “In terms of our overall performances guys aren't unhappy, we're not unhappy with how we're playing, we just need to execute better. Based off of things that we look at, we should have scored three or four goals in the last game, but we conceded goals that we shouldn't concede.”
The 3-2 loss in Vancouver left a sour feeling.
“After the Vancouver game, the day after when we all came into training, we had a discussion and we were thinking, ‘what can we do to get a result against Montreal?’” said Ayo Akinola. “From the coaching staff, from the players collectively, it's just do everything in our power to get a win.”
The striker focused primarily, but not entirely, on his end of the pitch.
“As a team just finish our chances.,” Akinola stressed. “Both games we dominated possession of the ball, [we were] primarily in the attacking half or the final third, and crosses are getting up, but we're just not getting on the end of things.”
“Just missing our chances,” he reiterated. “For me individually – just be more aggressive, getting more involved with the team. Whenever they need me in support, I’ve got to be there for them, instead of just staying up high.”
In his first season, to a superficial viewer it has seemed that Thierry Henry has tried a number of variations in lineup and formation, but Vanney sees the essence beneath.
“In general I don't think they've changed a ton,” he said of his opponent’s machinations. “It's a question really of whether they defend in four or defend in five; they want to attack in some version of a 3-4-3 – that's the shape they want to find. Where teams start and what they write on paper is irrelevant to me, it's ultimately how they rotate and what shape they're trying to find in the run of play and which players are trying to move into those spaces.”
“Sometimes they play with a false nine that drifts into one of the half spaces. Sometimes they'll play with a true striker and they'll just put players in the half spaces. It's not that their shape changes the ton, it's the personnel that they use and how they go about finding those spaces,” Vanney continued. “They might vary the rotations: there was a time in Orlando when [Henry] used his wing-backs, but then he brought those wing-backs inside and used the wingers as wing-backs in the attacks. It was the same thing, it's just a different rotation, so I don't think that's going to change a ton.”
“It's going to be personnel and how he uses them and which guys show up into the spots that we think they'll show up in, that's going to be the difference,” he added. “And whether they choose to defend in a back four or a back five might impact some of the things that we do on the attacking side. It's always an interesting [challenge], tactical nuances that we've got to pay attention to, but they ultimately morph into the same kind of thing every time they play.”
Wednesday will mark the fourth time TFC and the Impact have met since July.
The two teams are used to meeting often, which can affect the intensity, and without a full stadium some of the energy is drained away, but it’s still Toronto-Montreal and a shot at a trophy is on the line.
“Tomorrow's game will probably have a little something in it because in a way it's a final, at least on our half,” said Vanney. “When you play over and over it starts to lose a little bit.”
“The importance of the rivalries is that the games are meaningful, they're purposeful and there's emotion involved. And you also really kind of need the fans there because rivalries are very much about fans and supporters and supporter groups and all that,” he continued. “Given the amount of times that we've played them in a short period, given the fact that there's no fans in the stadium to provide the emotion, that takes a little bit away from it, but in the grand scheme of things it’s an important game tomorrow, regardless of who is in the stadium and who isn't, and regardless of how many times we've played.”
“This is an important game. Our guys understand that. There was a nice intensity and businesslike approach to training today,” Vanney added. “Our guys know what's in front of them.”
Akinola concurred: “The mood is it's a must-win now.... To get three points.”
“We know that the standings are tight, so it’s just get the three points because that'll put us in a great spot to get us into the Canadian Championship Final, so, nothing less,” he continued. “No tie or a loss, just the win. See if we can get the win, no matter how it is – no matter if it's gritty or it doesn't look pretty, just a win will be a happy thing for us.”