After a momentary respite, Toronto FC return to action on Saturday night when they travel to Pennsylvania for another top of the table clash.
Having completed the gruelling run of five matches in 16 days, the club was able to take a few days to visit their families before returning to the training pitch ahead of the next series of three matches in short order.
Four games remain on the schedule for the 2020 regular season.
Toronto closes the year away to the New York Red Bulls on November 8, but first is a gauntlet of three opponents – the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, NYCFC on Wednesday, and Inter Miami CF on Sunday, each fighting for their own reasons.
Miami are battling to get above the playoff line in their inaugural season. NYCFC are looking to get into the top half of the table to host a post-season match. And Philadelphia, well, they’re right on Toronto’s tail at the top of the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield race.
The six days between action came at a good time.
“In general guys are good,” assessed Greg Vanney during Friday’s Zoom conference call. “Some guys were trying to still recover from the stretch of five games in 16 days. It takes its toll.”
“We're turning some guys around on that, getting some guys healthy that missed a little bit of the last stretch, but mentally guys have been able to disengage for a couple days and are back and locked in,” he elaborated. “The intensity is there and the concentration is there, so now it's just trying to get everybody prepared for another tough stretch of games and an important stretch of games starting with Philly.”
Over the course of a long, hard season, staying tuned in is always part of the battle. In a year such as this, even more so.
It would be easy to take a day off, for the attention to wander, to settle for a draw on a difficult day. But as the late 1-0 win over Atlanta United FC last Sunday showed, with Pablo Piatti’s glancing header off a Richie Laryea cross finding the back of the net in the 89th minute, that is not how TFC have chosen to approach this campaign.
“There's a lot to play for in each one of these games,” noted Vanney. “We are in the tail stretch of the season. We're in position to chase down this Supporters’ Shield and win the regular season and that has everybody locked in.”
“We’re, by-and-large, locked up in this hotel and so there's not a lot of other things going on. Each one of these games is that moment where you get to get out and actually do something fun and compete. It's your break, away from being here at the hotel in our bubble,” he continued. “Each of these events – games, training sessions – is a good time for the guys to get away and do what they love to do.”
Trapped on the road, away from family and friends, without the crowd driving you on.... Turning lemons into lemonade is as good an aim as any for 2020.
“We've been able to maintain concentration, focus, and attention in each of these matches,” added Vanney. “But we're also close, close to the end of the season, and it's that time when everybody locks in just a little bit more.”
The playoffs are fast approaching.
“Whether it's Philly and we're competing with them to stay up at the top, or it's New York City, who is a good team, highly competitive, that is always going to be in the mix come playoff time, [or] Miami who's battling for that last playoff spot, all these teams have something that's in the balance in one way, shape, or form,” pinpointed Vanney. “The intensity of these games is going to ramp up.”
Big games, important games, pivotal ones, are no strangers to TFC these past few seasons. And whether it’s a decisive one at the top of the table, or a midweek against a struggling side, the key is to face them all “the same.”
“We need to go game by game,” urged Alejandro Pozuelo. “We know we are first, we depend on ourselves, but we need to keep going.”
And for Toronto that means playing to win.
“If we go for a draw or to be [defensive, it’s a] mistake,” he continued. “We need to go to win the game. We need to go to attack. We don't need to change nothing, we don't need to change the mentality, only to work and to win the game.”
19 games into the season there is no sense in altering that approach when the club travels to Suburu Park for the clash with the Union.
Separated by three points, each riding unbeaten runs – Philadelphia four, TFC nine – Saturday’s encounter has all the marks of an enticing one.
The two sides met just three weeks ago at Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Connecticut, where the Union took the lead early through Sergio Santos, only for Ayo Akinola to respond on the hour, setting the stage for Pozuelo’s game-winning header in the 76th minute.
That 2-1 Toronto win stands as the only Philadelphia defeat in their last 10 matches. Home wins against Cincinnati and Montreal, as well as a road draw against D.C. United and most recently a 2-1 win in New England, have the Union in good form.
Toronto are up for the challenge.
“We know they have a good team, they have good players, but we need to go to win the game,” said Pozuelo. “We know we have the quality for this, so we'll keep working. Saturday is for sure a different game because we play in their home, so we need to keep working and we need to work harder if we want to win.”
Philadelphia will have the ‘home field’ advantage, whatever that means these days.
“I anticipate them to try to raise the intensity level,” forecast Vanney. “They're at home. They're playing to try to even up the race at the top of the standings. They'll try to dictate the game a little bit more than maybe they were able to in the last game.”
“Whether they choose to press us higher or not,” he continued. “They'll attempt to put their stamp on more of the game, which could lead to them being a little bit more aggressive on the defending side.”
It is that time of year.
The leaves are falling, there is a chill in the air, the number of fixtures remaining can be counted on one hand, talk of championships and individual awards has gone from rare whisper to constant chatter.
With eight goals and ten assist through 19 matches, Pozuelo is in the running for the Landon Donovan MVP Award.
“The only thing I’m thinking now is to win the game, to be game by game,” replied Pozuelo, asked about the individual honour. “For me the most important is to win trophies with the club, collectively.”
“That for me is the most important,” he repeated. “And if we win, maybe the individual [award] is coming, but for me the most important now is to win with the team.”
After a tumultuous week, the Shield is back in play as well.
“It's about all the players in the league who have competed this season, through thick and thin and through tough times,” said Vanney, who voiced his displeasure at the shocking decision from the Supporters’ Shield Foundation. “When you start a season your goal is always to win trophies and there's only really three of them out there – the domestic championship, the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup – and the Shield is the long haul.”
“It's the one team that endures the most,” he continued. “It's the right thing. I applaud them for being open-minded and bringing it back to the equation. It's a goal of ours and so we're continuing to try to achieve it, but there's three, four, or five teams that are still within reach and so there's still a lot of work to be done.”
Four more, then the MLS Cup Playoffs. Bring it on.
“I want to win,” levelled Pozuelo. “We know Toronto, [for the last] five/six years, every year they go to the playoffs, they go to the final, they win trophies.”
“And this is what I want,” he continued. “I came for this. I know [past teams] won and gave something special for Toronto and I want to give the same.”