For Toronto FC this gruelling stretch of five games in 16 days comes to an end on Sunday evening with the visit of Atlanta United FC to Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium.
It began on October 3 at ‘home’ in East Hartford, Connecticut with a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. And saw TFC pick up 1-0 away wins at the New England Revolution and FC Cincinnati before returning to The Rent midweek for a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls, extending the current unbeaten run to eight matches.
Even with the torrid pace, TFC have found a way, taking and then maintaining the lead atop both the Eastern Conference and the league.
A week off lies on the other side of this last one. A chance to regroup before setting back out for the final thrust of four matches, beginning with another flurry of three games in nine days.
“We want to finish strong,” said Greg Vanney during Friday’s Zoom conference call. “But at the same time we want to get out of this series as healthy as we can and move on to the next series.”
“The objective is to try to get three points,” he continued. “Objective two is to be as healthy as we possibly can at the end of this because this is definitely the most gruelling stretch that we've had so far.”
“The days off will be very much welcome,” he added. “The opportunity to see family will be welcome for sure. Just the ability to reset physically and mentally a little bit, one more time, before we have another stretch of three games in a tight space. Everyone's looking forward to that, but everybody is really engaged in trying to finish this series of games on a high note.”
Toronto’s momentary return home will follow the same strict protocols as the last one.
In a season riven with uncertainty, TFC have found a way by relying on themselves and each other. The talent helps, no doubt. But even without some of the regulars in the lineup every night, the team has gotten the job done.
Everyone has stepped up when called upon.
“As Poz has alluded to a couple of times, we have a good team,” replied Vanney, referencing a famous post-match sentiment from Alejandro Pozuelo in the playoffs last year. “We have a lot of depth in our team, we have a lot of experience, we still have a group of guys who have won a lot of big games together, who have played a lot of minutes together, and we have some up and coming players who are capable of playing in this league.”
“Ayo [Akinola] has really stepped up and has proven his value. Pat [Mullins], in the absence of Jozy [Altidore], is a guy who has really grinded in this league and is capable of stepping in and scoring goals, as he has,” detailed Vanney. “Our midfield, in filling in for Michael [Bradley], guys have stepped up in slightly different roles in [Jonathan] Oso[rio] and Marky [Delgado]. We have some versatility too in that we can mix up our shape a little bit, we don't always have to play the same way. And we can use different relationships and different partnerships.”
“Tsubasa [Endoh] stepped on the other night and was excellent. He's had to be a little bit patient as we try to bring some of the young guys along, but he stepped in and didn't skip a beat,” he continued. “Tony [Gallacher] has come in and helped our team a lot. The centre-backs have stepped up through this.”
“One of the things I've been really trying to do is keep everybody involved as much as I can, understanding that there are a lot of challenges with that, but trying to keep everybody engaged,” Vanney highlighted. “And everybody is riding the wave of confidence. It doesn't matter whether it's the first guy, second guy, or third guy in the position, everybody is feeling the confidence. They know when they're called upon that they have to step up because things are rolling and they've got to hold up their end of the bargain.”
“There is a nice camaraderie, everybody is supporting each other through the process and through each one of these games,” he added. “The other guy who has stepped up big has been Nick DeLeon, who constantly steps in and gives us some of that maturity, and, obviously, Poz is having an incredible season which is really helpful.”
“Guys feel like when they get called upon they've got to hold up their end,” Vanney concluded. “That has been a nice part of the culture right now that's going on within our group.”
For this weekend’s opponents, a team that has been used to being at the top throughout their existence, this season has been unkind.
Atlanta enters the round on 19 points from 18 matches, clinging to the final playoff berth in the East by dint of goal-difference.
A 1-1 draw midweek away to Inter Miami CF seems them riding a three-match winless skid, preceded by a scoreless draw against Orlando City SC and a 1-0 loss against the Red Bulls.
It has been a year of transition for Atlanta.
Josef Martinez has been out nearly the entire year following his injury on February 29, opening day. Frank de Boer’s tenure ended after a season-and-a-half in July – they are currently overseen by interim manager Stephen Glass. Pity Martinez, the player meant to replace the heroics of Miguel Almiron has left, and a new designated player, Marcelino Moreno arrived from CA Lanus in Argentina and made his debut against New York, only to not appear in the 18 midweek.
“They're a team that's trying to find some consistency and their footing,” began Vanney. “I watched them against Red Bulls specifically and they had a good chunk of that game, probably deserved more out of it. The last game against Miami, in the first half that I watched so far, they were up against it, Miami probably should have had a little bit more. There's still a decent team in possession; a little bit vulnerable at times on the defensive end.”
“They have a new coach and anytime you adjust your DPs and some of the big players, that's always going to impact your style of play,” he outlined. “They're trying to figure out exactly what that style is right now – even between Tata [Martino] and Frank there was a change in style.”
“Tata was very aggressive, forward-thinking, they attack fast,” Vanney detailed. “Almiron was driving the speed of their attack and they came at you fast and relentless. And then you had Frank come in and he slowed them down a little bit, it became more methodical, they had worked a little bit more on their defending side and being stingy.”
“Now they're in between, trying to figure out what the best way is to be successful,” he continued. “In addition, they're having some big turnover with some of their most important players, so that's going to impact things. What they're going through is trying to really find and see what is their identity in the moment, to find that consistency that they're looking for, but they still have quality players.”
“They can still hurt you, they're going to still work hard, and they still have some experienced guys out there in leadership positions like [Jeff] Larentowicz, who has won a lot of games in this league,” Vanney cautioned. “They’re like every team in this league, you have to take them seriously and you have to play well on the day to earn the result.”
Matches between these two over the years have never disappointed.
The first three clashes were entertaining 2-2 draws, before TFC broke the ice with a 4-1 win on the final day of the 2018 season, a match that denied Atlanta the Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta would get their revenge the following season with a 2-0 win in the first meeting, only for Toronto to reply weeks later with a 3-2 win in the second.
And then there was the encounter in the Eastern Conference Finals last October, where TFC survived an early goal and Quentin Westberg saved a penalty kick before Nicolas Benezet nabbed an equalizer, teeing up DeLeon for the late heroics.
One more, then a rest, if only for a moment.
“We have to play well,” urged Vanney. “It's the fifth game in this series of games, so everybody is a little bit banged up and just a little bit tired. There's a real mentality aspect to this: come out and get a hold of the game early, get on top of the game early if we can, and play it out.”