The next phase of the MLS regular season begins on Saturday.
The opening six weeks of action, between Concacaf Champions League and those first samplings of league play, are always a trying time as players get up to pace and the team works on implementing systemic tweaks.
Well-rested and unbeaten in two matches following last Wednesday’s 2-0 win against the Columbus Crew and the 1-1 draw away to NYCFC on Saturday, Toronto FC are looking forward to a Saturday evening clash against Orlando City SC at Exploria Stadium.
Since the season began, TFC have had an entire week between fixtures only twice: one between the season opener and the second game and then between the two legs of the quarterfinal series in the Champions League.
They have made the most of this third one.
“It helps in many ways,” said Chris Armas during Friday’s pre-match Zoom conference call. “[It] gives us some consistency, more guys in training, more training days to work on a few things. Things are stabilizing around here for us. It gives us some normalcy, some days we can back it up and build, and then come down physically in the right [way ahead of the game].”
“It's much needed. There was a whirlwind early on, for sure, with so much going on, different competitions and urgency levels as we're piecing things together. It was a good week,” he added. “Good energy in the team, good build-up, and I think we're in a good place right now to put together a 90-minute performance in all ways.”
The players are feeling the difference seven days can make.
“It's been great to finally have these days to really put in the work and have the time to recover our bodies in every way,” said Mark Delgado. “Whether it's massages or just taking it easy, having our feet up, not thinking, ‘Oh, in two days we have a game again.’”
“It's been beneficial for me and I'm sure everyone else is taking full advantage of this,” he continued. “Everyone looks fresh, everyone's flying.”
That will be tested on Saturday when TFC takes the field against Orlando City.
Unbeaten through five matches – two wins and three draws – the Lions come into the match on the heels of a hard-fought 1-0 win away to D.C. United on Sunday.
Through it all Orlando have conceded just twice in league play.
“It starts with the head coach, Oscar Pareja, who I know pretty well – many, many years ago we played against each other in MLS,” began Armas. “He sees the game both ways, so his team is creative and they attack and they create transition going forward, but they're a team that works hard the way he did.”
“As much as he was an attacker, he also understands the other side. His team is organized and it's a very honest, hard working team with his guidance,” he continued. “They're a team that's together – they attack together, they defend together – which makes it pretty stingy defensively.”
The veteran Portuguese winger Nani leads the way with three goals for the side, but the return of attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra has seen Orlando’s attacking output increase in the three outings he has been a part of. Add in the likes of Chris Mueller, Canadian Tesho Akindele, and the rest and TFC will have their hands full come kickoff.
“They're a good team, they're hard to play against,” said Delgado. “Nani is really crafty, early crosses, they’ve got a lot of different ways that they can play. We’ve just got to do our homework on them, not just on the team overall, but on each player and what they like to do.”
“And come game time, we just have to be ready and know what's coming,” he added. “And at the same time never forget that when we step on the field, we’ve got to play our style as well, not react to what's playing against us.”
Armas elaborated on the threats ahead: “They're a team that plays with energy, they're good in transition, if you think about Chris Mueller, Nani, they can attack from wide areas, they can overload central areas with Junior Urso and their playmaker Pereyra, who is, for me, one of the best in the league in that part of the field.”
“He’s intelligent, understands space, good decision maker,” he listed. “Akindele up the pitch is always a threat on our back-line, a true 9. The attacking corps is a nice group, they can be dangerous in possession, they have guys that can use the ball the right way. They can open you up with Ruan coming on the flanks and Nani on the other side. We'll have to be good with the ball because they are good in transition. You don't want to lose bad balls with those guys waiting to attack.”
“The other part is they're strong in the midfield, [Jhegson] Mendez and Urso are ball-winning sixes. They're very athletic and strong all around. And they are a team that's organized, they play with some intensity, they play in transition, they're good at home,” Armas continued. “But we're in that building too so we intend to put them in a hard game.”
“We also like to press, we also like to play in transition, and we also like the ball,” he relished. “So it sets up to be a good one for us, a good test. We're looking forward to it.”
An added wrinkle this weekend is the temporary derby aspect of the match. TFC have made Exploria Stadium in Orlando their home away from home for this part of the MLS season. They will be the visiting side on Saturday, however, making for a somewhat surreal affair.
“It is what it is at the end of the day, you've got to take it as it comes,” levelled Delgado. “It is weird. It's our home stadium, temporarily, but then again it's an away game so.... And then there's going to be fans rooting for the other team.”
“Weird, but it's exciting. We get to play it in front of fans, have the opportunity to beat them on their home turf, so in that sense it’s exciting,” he added. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Said Armas: “This is our home right now, so it's a home game for us. Supporters and fans and energy in the building, our guys understand and thrive when the lights come on. And it's a really good pitch – 120 by 75, the ball moves, it's a putting green really.”
“There's lots of reasons to be excited,” he added. “And in our minds any pitch is our home. We’ll be up for it.”