Home sweet home-away-from-home.
Toronto FC’s stay in East Hartford, Connecticut at Pratt & Whitney Stadium’s Rentschler Field begins on Sunday night with the visit of Columbus Crew SC.
On the heels of Wednesday’s gritty 1-0 win over NYCFC at Red Bull Arena, where Alejandro Pozuelo’s last-minute penalty kick proved the difference, TFC are braced for a clash against a Crew side who sit atop both the Eastern Conference standings and lead in the chase for the Supporters’ Shield.
“This will be a good test,” said Greg Vanney in Friday’s prematch Zoom conference call. “Columbus has shown to be one of the leaders this year in terms of goals against, but also very good at creating chances. We’re looking forward to this match.”
“It’s another challenge and it’s our first opportunity to play here in Hartford,” he continued. “The field is in great condition and we’ve enjoyed our time here so far, so we’re looking to get off on the right foot.”
Though it isn’t BMO Field, the game remains the same.
“It's a rectangular field, it's grass, two teams who have very good players and will be organized will go at it and the best team wins on the night,” levelled Vanney. “Everything this year has been a little bit awkward at times, from playing down in Orlando to everything else that's going on, so it'll be no different in that way.”
In preparation, the field has been detailed to TFC’s specifications.
“Yes, we can make Hartford a home,” anticipated Chris Mavinga, who played his 100th match for the club midweek. “We’ve trained here a week, on the grass and in the stadium. The dimensions of the grass is the same as BMO. This is good.”
“We know everything about here, so we have to take this as an advantage,” he continued. “It's good for us to play in this stadium. It’s a little bit neutral, but it's better than to go to another MLS team’s stadium. It’s going to be good.”
The busy schedule continues, so for Vanney and the rest of the staff it is about managing the roster through the frenetic action.
“It's a tough one. We've got to find balance,” said Vanney. “Third game in eight days, difficult opponent, the last game was also a difficult opponent, but we were able to get three points on the road. We’re going to put out a group that we think can win the game. That's how we're going to go about it.”
Mark Delgado and Liam Fraser should be available for selection, though Michael Bradley and Auro remain sidelined and Noble Okello went on loan to Danish club HB Køge.
The extra day of rest will come in handy.
“Selection is a bit of a challenge, just variables that we have to deal with, but we're going to go for it and see how guys recover,” said Vanney. “Four days between games is so much better than three days, in terms of our guys being able to have a chance to recover and be on the upswing in terms of the physical preparation for the next game. Most of our guys will be in pretty good shape, hopefully we can get one or two back. We'll set up the group to pick up the points.”
With the remainder of the MLS regular season schedule set, a little bit of clarity has been shone on an otherwise tumultuous year.
“Being able to size up what's in front of you is big,” said Vanney. “We know how many games, we know where the games are, who they are against, we know the timeline of them. We know now what our lifestyle looks like here in Hartford, in the stadium, in the training ground, so a lot of things that were uncertain now start to have some certainty to them, which is always important.”
“It helps the depth players too because they know in some of these stretches we're going to have to dig deep and everybody is going to have to play a part. It gives a lot of clarity,” he continued. “You never want to be unbalanced all the time.”
“And we have some windows of time where, hopefully, we'll be able to get back, see some family, and then go back out and get some results. It allows us to lay out a calendar for everybody, how we're going to go about things,” Vanney added. “The last week-and-a-half to two weeks with everything coming clear has really helped the group settle in a little bit more.”
Toronto will have a full week to embed themselves further ahead of next Saturday’s match against the Philadelphia Union in East Hartford, another match against a side at the top of a congested Eastern Conference where TFC, the Union, and Orlando City SC are tied on 25 points, five shy of Crew SC.
Columbus, playing in their second season under Caleb Porter, have been as perfect as one could expect in an interrupted season.
Through 13 matches they have conceded just five goals, keeping nine clean-sheets. They are a perfect seven wins from seven home dates and come into Sunday’s contest on a six-game unbeaten run having beaten Minnesota United FC 2-1 on Wednesday.
TFC won the most recent meeting – 1-0 at home last October with Pozuelo the goal-scorer – and are unbeaten in the last three having taken draws from two trips to Columbus – a 2-2 in August 2019 and a 3-3 in June 2018.
Crew SC will undoubtedly be looking to end that run and affirm their position as the team to beat this season having struggled in year one under Porter.
“Anytime it's the first year and you go into a new team and a coach like Gregg Berhalter was the coach before,” began Vanney. “He has a very structured style and it's not the same style as Caleb’s, though not miles apart. Caleb has been able to transition what was Gregg's team to, now, his team and has been able to imprint his mark on this team.”
“[Columbus] has gone out and got an incredible player in [Lucas] Zelarayan and added some other very good players to the mix. They now have a little bit more of his image and his philosophy in their mind,” he continued. “When those things start to come together then he has a better shot at being successful and they have been.”
“Part of that is they've defended very well. They work really hard to get numbers behind the ball. Their centre-backs are big strong guys, who have done a good job of protecting. They don't make a ton of mistakes,” Vanney highlighted. “And obviously they have some guys who can hurt you on the attacking end. They're a committed group; through that they stay organized and defend well. That's a good starting point.”
Gyasi Zardes leads the side with six goals, while both Pedro Santos and the aforementioned Zelarayan have three.
“I expect this is going to be a tough game against a good opponent,” relished Mavinga. “Yes, they are playing well, but it’s going to be a good game for both teams.”
“We know our team, we know our culture. We can beat any team in this league,” he added. “Yes, it's going to be tough, but I’m confident. We’ll see on Sunday.”