Playoff spot secured, Toronto FC returned to the pitch on Wednesday night back in East Hartford, Connecticut braced for the arrival of the New York Red Bulls.
Sunday’s 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati not only saw TFC become the first team to clinch a berth in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs and extended both the winning and unbeaten streaks to five and seven matches, respectively, but also saw Toronto do it while giving some rest to key players.
Being able to rely on the depth to get the job done is invaluable in any season. In a year as chaotic and a season as condensed as this, it is only more so.
“It’s certainly helped us,” said Greg Vanney during Tuesday’s Zoom conference call. “We have some solid depth and we have guys coming back, like Michael [Bradley] and Justin [Morrow] very soon, that will continue to add to the number of players with experience in these big games that are going to be in front of us.”
“Depth has really helped us to endure through this,” he continued. “The camaraderie of our team and guys’ willingness to work together, put ego aside and do what's best, and also to manage difficult circumstances, all of it has helped us to be successful.”
Such contributions were clear in Ohio with Patrick Mullins, Eriq Zavaleta, Liam Fraser, and Jayden Nelson all chipping into the victory. Mullins and Zavaleta were named to the Team of the Week for their displays.
Where Zavaleta was a rock at the back, Mullins found the back of the net for the game’s only goal. His celebration showed how much it meant to him and to his team.
“The fist pump probably tells it all,” he explained. “I let my celebrations flow, so that's certainly what I was feeling at that point in time.”
It’s tough to be a substitute, yet still contribute when called upon.
“I haven't had as many opportunities as I was hoping for on the field when the season began, for a variety of reasons, and I wanted to make sure that in my time out there against Cincinnati I took advantage of it,” Mullins said. “Getting that goal felt very good personally. And of course it was a big goal because it turned out to be the winner on the night and another big three points to hopefully get us to closer to our goals.”
It takes another level of concentration, nevermind patience, to stay tuned in from outside the action and be ready when your time comes.
To do so, Mullins focuses on the larger game.
“Each forward’s preparation is different, but I like to focus a lot on the other parts of the game – what my responsibilities are defending-wise and how I'm going to help the team build up the attack – before I think about finishing,” he explained. “Finishing is very much an instinctual part of my game that I've trained very hard on. It's not something I focus on too much to put any added pressure on.”
“I like to really make sure that I can give a good performance for the team,” Mullins added. “In my career I’ve found that when I play my best is when I'm focusing on the group. That's served me well and I’ve been able to get some goals in this league.”
But still it isn’t easy.
The players who don’t play every night still face the same difficulties as everyone else, only without the regular distraction and exhaustion that comes from 90 minutes.
“I miss my family, I miss home, but we have a job to do,” said Zavaleta. “We're focused on the task at hand, which is winning the games in front of us, trying to stay at the top of the table and put ourselves in the best position come playoff time.”
“It's a focused group. We've got a veteran group, so guys understand the task at hand and don't get too distracted with all of the factors that we can't control. And we've done a good job of that,” he continued. “Fortunately, we have a club who has done everything they possibly can to make us feel comfortable, to make us feel at home in a situation that's very difficult.”
“It's not easy,” he added. “But you put your head down, you go to work and you try to do your best to win games for this club.”
With so much of defending attention to detail, stepping into the fray for the first time in a month is doubly difficult.
“Especially given that centre-back [is] a position that relies on games and consistency, it's not easy,” said Zavaleta. “My job is to make sure that any opportunity I'm given, I take, and make sure that I can help the team accumulate points the way we have with me not being on the field.”
“It's not perfect,” he added. “But it's a scenario we’re in at the moment and I'm going to make the best of that.”
Playing a fourth game in 12 days, Toronto will need all the legs they can get when they face the Red Bulls back at Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium midweek.
In the midst of a coaching transition from Chris Armas to Gerhard Struber, the Red Bulls are still the Red Bulls, even if they find themselves in the middle of the Eastern Conference rather than battling at the top.
They have their ways.
“The start of the games are very important when you play Red Bulls because they usually come out quite aggressive,” cautioned Vanney. “Their M.O. is to try to create a little bit of chaos at the start and see if they can create turnovers and get a lead.”
“We've got to be diligent at the beginning of the game and smart about how we approach it,” he continued. “But we've also got to find our ways to get a hold of the ball, be in good spots for each other, play quickly, play within our view of things.”
The question is at what level the intensity is going to be set.
“When it comes to Red Bull teams, on the spectrum of how aggressive to how passive you want to be in the pressure, it's a matter of where on the eight, nine, ten on the scale of high press you're going to get on a given day or with a given coach,” Vanney explained. “They're always going to want a high press, they're always going to choose their moment and come fast and come hard.”
“Chris might have been an eight and now Stuber might be at a nine or 10,” he continued. “It's all the same philosophy – the concepts are the same, it's just a matter of how aggressive and how fast they're going to come, and how frequently over the course of 90 minutes are they going to try to do it.”
“That's the variation. In the short term, [Bradley Carnell], the interim coach that has them now, has turned the dial up,” Vanney observed. “Might have been a seven or eight earlier in the year, they're closer to an eight/nine now in terms of how much pressure they'd like to put higher up the field and how much running they're willing to do and how aggressive the centre-backs are going to be to step into the midfield to try to close things off. That's Red Bulls as Red Bulls, it's just a matter of how extreme they're going to want to be.
That upped amperage comes at a cost.
“That opens up more space behind them,” noted Vanney. “With some of the guys that we have now, that are capable, like Ayo [Akinola], to really expose space in behind teams, as we saw against New England and others who have tried to really press us.”
It will be a contest of wills, as it so often is: who can impose their vision on the game and who blinks first.
“Their success is based off of their ability to be successful in the press and using those balls that they win higher up the field and in dangerous areas,” assessed Vanney. “They're also a team that can beat you in set pieces. They're clever about things that they do, they've got some good size.”
“Transitions and set pieces are the two ways they can hurt you on the attacking side,” he summed up. “And then on the defending side, they just make the game tough because they're coming pretty quick.”
“This year they've been up and down in being able to create opportunities and score the goals that they’ve needed. And they've also shown some vulnerabilities on the defensive side. They've been, at times, inconsistent,” levelled Vanney. “But they’re still always difficulty to play against and always a difficult team to beat.”
The Red Bulls enter the match in seventh place in the East, seven points off of a top four berth and five points above the dividing line. They will be eager to move up the table and fend off challengers from below.
A big win on the weekend away to Atlanta United FC will have them in good spirits after a pair of losses.
“I expect a game from them that should be right on their brand,” forecast Mullins. “Very physical and aggressive.”
“They're a bit in transition, but I fully expect a big challenge where we're going to have to be at our best, have to move the ball quickly and sync up all of our movements in attack to make sure that we'll have solutions on the day to get the result that we want because Red Bulls is always a hungry group,” he added. “We'll be ready for that.”