TORONTO – In a season marked by uncertainty, knowing what lies ahead provides some measure of comfort.
Toronto FC and the rest of MLS learned the path before them with the release of the schedule for the remainder of the regular season on Tuesday.
In addition to the two games already set for this week, TFC will play nine further matches, all against Eastern Conference opposition, through to Decision Day on November 8.
“It’s going to be a challenging schedule,” said Greg Vanney on Tuesday’s Zoom conference call. “A lot of Eastern Conference opponents, some big matches with teams that we're going to be vying for a playoff position with. The games come fast and furious.”
“We’re playing every three or four days, by and large. There's a little break after this stretch before we start another stretch of five games in a really tight time frame. A lot of games in a short period of time,” he continued. “It's physically challenging. It's a war of attrition that we're trying to work our way through and keep guys healthy as much as we can.”
“I said it after the last game [against D.C. United], speaking to Ben Olsen before the game and looking at the guys that they had up in the stands, every team is going through it,” Vanney added. “We're all trying to manage the schedule and the challenges that come with it.”
Embrace the challenge.
“It's good to be playing,” relished Quentin Westberg. “For sure it's going to be a long stretch. There's two ways to see it, either challenging, but interesting and exciting or you're passive about it.”
“I think [the latter] is not the right mindset,” he stressed. “So it’s taking a game at a time. We have a lot of guys on board, so it's going to be a question of how we handle this as a group and how everybody steps up.”
On the heels of the 2-2 draw at D.C. on Saturday, TFC is now faced with a veritable gauntlet of the best the East can offer.
Their next three matches see them play all but one of the other top five sides in the conference.
The run closes on October 3 against the Philadelphia Union and will see TFC play their first match at their home away from home – Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Connecticut – a clash with current table toppers Columbus Crew SC on Sunday.
But up first is NYCFC on Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena, a rematch against the team that knocked them out of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida back in July.
NYCFC, who currently sit in fifth spot in the East, five points behind TFC, are coming off a scoreless draw away to the New England Revolution on Saturday.
The split points extended their unbeaten run to six matches dating back to an August 20 loss against their New York rivals, the Red Bulls and included wins over Columbus, Chicago Fire FC, New England, and FC Cincinnati, as well as a second scoreless draw away to D.C. United.
Head coach Ronny Delia, in his first season with the club, has found a rhythm, even if they are not scoring at the same pace as they did last year.
It will be the third meeting between the two clubs this season, as TFC won 1-0 at BMO Field on March 7 and NYCFC advanced in Orlando with a 3-1 win in the Round of 16.
“They have a good structure,” began Vanney. “Defensively, they have become a little more aggressive from the front then they were at the beginning of the season when we first played them. Even when we played them in the tournament they were more aggressive in how they pressed and really tried to limit our ability to have possession or to get into good spots or rotate, which I expect will be very similar tomorrow.”
“We've got to be good with the ball, continue to move the ball quickly, try to take advantage of spaces when they open up, try to continue to get attacks deeper into their half of the field, and force them back,” he urged. “We need to be more organized in our attacking structure than we were the other night [against D.C.]. We need to be more disciplined and better about that, especially against a team that will be more aggressive defensively.”
“On the other side of things, even though they're not scoring a lot of goals they have good players and we've got to manage those players, we've got to manage their movements, protect our goal, and not give away silly things to a very good team,” Vanney continued. “We've got to be more reliable in making plays and making it more difficult for teams to score goals. They have to work to score goals, instead of us just conceding for them essentially.”
Over the years, the matches between these two have often been spectacular, with both sides on the end of some tough, stinging defeats.
The feeling at the end of the knockout game in July is still fresh in the mind.
“My frustrations in that game was just from a competitive standpoint, that they wanted the game more than we wanted the game,” Vanney recalled. “You’ve got to win the competition before you can win the game. You’ve got to win the competition before you earn the right to actually play and do the things that you want to do on the field and on the ball.”
“Our heads were in a lot of different places that day and we need to make sure that we're singularly focused on the competition and executing the things that we need to execute. I believe that will be the case,” he said. “We have to go out and execute, then the soccer game can happen.”
“In that game, from the opening whistle, we weren't ready to play. We gave away an early goal and we got outcompeted in too many situations for too long throughout the game,” he added. “That's something that has to change just as a starting point.”
In a weird year that game was extra odd.
The group stage matches offered valuable points for the regular season – that provided a clear goal. The rest of the tournament did not.
“The Disney game is totally different,” began Westberg. “It was a game that was awkward in many ways. We didn't really know if it was a game that meant a lot, we got caught in between and we just weren't ourselves.”
“All the other games that I have experienced against NYCFC, for sure it's challenging, but it's a good challenge. It's a team that showcases a brand of football that we like and that is in some ways similar [to ours] in the mentality,” he added. “It's fun. It’s tactical combat, but also individual combat – winning your duels with your direct opponent and being more disciplined and being able to establish your values as a soccer team. This is why NYCFC is always good opposition to play.”