TORONTO – With the all-Canadian portion of their schedule having come to a satisfying conclusion midweek, Toronto FC is braced for what comes next.
As with so much else in 2020, exactly what that will look like is uncertain.
The MLS regular season continues, that much is clear. Up first is a match against D.C. United at Audi Field on Saturday. Then comes a midweek trip to Red Bull Arena for a clash with NYCFC before TFC welcomes Columbus Crew SC to their home-away-from-home in East Hartford, Connecticut: Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
The schedule after that has yet to be confirmed.
At some point, having topped the three-team table with the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto will meet the winner of the Canadian Premier League’s Island Games, set to be determined on Saturday when Forge FC and HFX Wanderers FC meet in the final, to find out who will represent Canada in the Concacaf Champions League.
But looking too far ahead in these times is not an option, not that D.C. pose simple questions either.
“There's not a ton of clarity of what they will do,” admitted Greg Vanney on Wednesday during a conference call. “They've done some different things tactically, in terms of their shape over the last few games. They've been in a diamond last game, they were in a 4-2-3-1 at one point, they were in a 5-4-1.”
Ben Olsen’s side, ever tenacious as their coach, is always a challengeut they have struggled to find a rhythm with the departure of Wayne Rooney in the offseason.
Winless at the MLS is Back Tournament, collecting two draws in their three matches, D.C. resumed the regular season with another run of three-straight without a win through August, including a 4-1 defeat in Philadelphia.
September brought a win, 1-0 away to the New York Red Bulls, just their second of the year. A draw against NYCFC days later could have been a turning point, only for the Red Bulls to find revenge this past weekend with a 2-0 win on D.C.’s turf.
United currently sit a point below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference with 10 points through 11 matches.
Consistency, in these interrupted times, has been hard to find. That can make assessing an opponent even more complex.
“One of the ways we work around here is to try to be able to adapt; when we see different things have solutions. A lot of our emphasis will be on ourselves and our preparation and our ability to be fluid based on what we see during the course of the game,” reiterated Vanney. “They've obviously had some injuries. Maybe they'll get some of those guys back; that might impact what they do, but we're not going to play a huge guessing game there.”
Along with longer term injuries to Paul Arriola and Felipe Martins, key pieces Bill Hamid, Steve Birnbaum and Edison Flores have all missed the last four matches.
“We're trying to just focus on ourselves this week and all the things that we need to be prepared for in these games, focusing on the one right in front of us,” explained Vanney. “D.C. will be D.C. and we'll be ready for what we need to be ready for and still be ourselves and still play the way we like to play and keep the game as much in our vision as we can.”
In light of how the last two between the sides ended – the 5-1 TFC win in the first round of the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs at BMO Field and the contentious, delayed 2-2 draw in Florida on July 13 – Vanney expects there to be some added elements come Saturday.
“I do think there will be a little bit of emotion in the game,” he forecast. D.C. were displeased that Toronto did not travel to the field amidst uncertainty when the match was originally scheduled and voiced their displeasure when the game was played.
Time and conversations will have lowered the temperature somewhat.
“Both teams were in that bubble for another two or three weeks together, guys spoke to each other after the game and a lot of that stuff was put to rest,” said Vanney. “There was a little bit of a misunderstanding, but I think a lot of that stuff got discussed, worked out, and everybody moves on.”
From there, it doesn’t get any easier for TFC with games against two of fellow members of the top six in the East in NYCFC and Columbus.
With border restrictions in place, all three Canadian teams will be setting camp south of the border for home matches next weekend – Vancouver will play in Portland and Montreal at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.
Just another wrinkle to a complicated season.
“The circumstances are tougher for our teams,” began Vanney. “There's no such thing as a home game anymore, everything is going to be on the road, we're going to be living in hotels, our training facilities are going to be makeshift, so, for sure, it's different.”
“The emotional side of being away from family plays into it, all those things are factors. We'll do what we always do at TFC, which is we'll take every step that we possibly can to make it as comfortable and as, for lack of better words, easy on the guys as we can and help guys take care of things and make sure families are taken care of,” he continued. “We're going to try to do what we've done all season, which is not to focus on those things, but focus on what we can control – our preparation, our performance individually and collectively – and if we do all that well then hopefully we can get the outcomes to continue to move in our favour. That's what we'll emphasize, and we'll try to be resilient and work through this.”
“We don't know everything about what's going on after this phase, but our hope is that we'll have little windows where we might be able to get home for a couple days. We would have to quarantine, but at least find a way to get home to say hello to our kids and family,” Vanney aimed. “In an ideal world we won't have to be on the road for eight-straight weeks, but a lot of details there are still trying to be worked out.”