One more game before the international break.
Toronto FC will take to the pitch on Saturday night at Historic Crew Stadium for their second match of the season against the defending MLS Cup Champions, the Columbus Crew.
It will then be almost three weeks before MLS action resumes for the majority of the clubs on the weekend of June 19.
A pause to regroup, rest up, get healthy and spend some time on the training pitch, going over the information garnered from the first seven matches of the season can be useful, but so too is a rhythm of matches – something that has proved elusive thus far.
Having gone unbeaten through a pair of tough opponents – winning against Columbus and earning a hard-fought draw at NYCFC – Toronto were disappointed by last weekend’s 1-0 loss against high-flying Orlando City SC.
“There's some really good moments, but in order to win in our league we have to put it together for 90 minutes and we haven't done that,” levelled Chris Armas during Thursday’s pre-match conference call. “When you think about the Orlando game, at the end you feel like we fell short.”
“It wasn’t unlucky, it wasn't a referee – although there's a couple of penalties they don't call, but that's not the reason why we don’t win,” he continued. “We have to execute in the moment of truth when that arises in games. It's execution and concentration – that is in our control.”
“As much as we’re creating chances, minimizing chances the other way, that feels good on some level, but we want to get the results, we want to win,” Armas stressed. “That's coming, it's going to come, and we're going to keep sticking to what we can control and the real work every day. We have to make it happen and this team is going to make it happen. We're all going to make it happen and we're going to get on a roll.”
It’s hard to believe, but the league campaign is barely six-weeks old. Between the Concacaf Champions League and the first bit of schedule congestion this month, it’s been a whirlwind start.
The players are seeing the desired progress.
“We’re starting to get better at the principles that Chris is teaching us,” reflected Eriq Zavaleta, who will report for international duty for the first time with the El Salvador National Team following Saturday’s action. “In the Champions League you get thrown into those games early and have to try to find a way to get results, but you can see our vision with and without the ball starting to come together.”
“It’s only going to get stronger,” he forecast. “As we keep getting guys into the fold, but also start to understand and get on the same page, collectively, you're only going to see us grow stronger.”
Added Auro Junior through a translator: “We're going through a tough moment right now because we didn’t start the season the way we wanted.”
“But I believe in the work that the team, the coach, that everyone is doing here,” he continued. “No matter how we win, we just have to start getting points. We're playing through some difficult moments. We have to keep working.”
Despite the sentiments expressed outside, inside there is a calm certainty.
“No, it's football. Sometimes you get bounces your way, sometimes you don't,” replied Zavaleta, asked if the slow start was getting to them. “We all feel very good about where we are in the process with Chris. Bounces will start to fall our way.”
“I don't think there's any frustration – there's urgency for sure: we understand that you need to get results and if you fall behind too far early, it becomes difficult. And so we feel the urgency of the moment, but certainly no frustration,” he explained. “We feel very confident in who we are and that who we are will get us results in the long run.”
And there would be no better way to head into the international break than with another victory over the Crew, in the final game TFC will play at Historic Crew Stadium.
There have been many moments, good and bad, over the years for Toronto in the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. Back in the day, it was one of the few feasible road trips for TFC fans eager to support the Reds away from home.
The Crew are scheduled to open their new one come July and with this being the final regular season meeting between the two, TFC are bidding farewell to the old ground, which opened in 1999.
Armas recalls his time on that pitch fondly, regardless of which side he was representing.
“It's historic – the first soccer stadium, specific for our game. Back in the day when I was a player – the Chicago Fire in Columbus – it felt like a derby type of thing,” he recalled. “It's not that far, our fans were in that building.”
“I'll always remember some of those big games and playoff games. On many nights I was being booed in there as a player by their avid supporters, which was always cool. But many other nights I was with the US National Team being cheered on by maybe the same people,” Armas continued. “Big 2-0 victory in that building against Mexico, qualifying for the 2006 World Cup on that pitch at the end of 2005 with American flags draped around us. Big moments with the national team.”
“It's a really cool building,” he added. “We'll all have great memories to take there, but they're doing a nice job with the new one. We can't wait to see it.”
The Crew may be champions, but TFC have had their number of late.
Toronto have won the last three league meetings and are unbeaten in five – Columbus have won just one of the last eight clashes. Between TFC’s 2-0 win on May 12 where Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore provided the goals and last September’s 3-1 man-handling in Connecticut, the Crew will be eager to overturn that form.
“They're going to try to beat us,” said Zavaleta. “They remember just as well as we do that we beat them. We also gave them a tough loss last year. These are things that teams remember. So I expect them to come after us, to try to use the home field advantage.”
“But we'll be ready for that,” he continued. “Games against Columbus are always very interesting tactically. We both understand each other pretty well and so it'll be another battle. We have to be up for it and be sharp on the day to get the victory.”
The Crew, who have had their own struggles since taking part in the Champions League at the start of the year, picked up their second victory of the season last weekend with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over NYCFC at Yankee Stadium.
Lucas Zelarayan scored both goals late, a pair of jaw-dropping free-kicks in the 82nd and 95th minutes.
“He's what [Mauricio] Pereyra means to Orlando and Alejandro Pozuelo means to us – he's a playmaker, a top playmaker in the league,” cautioned Armas. “He can obviously hurt you in many different ways. He can hurt you in the run of play, the final play, final passes, and 25 yards in on goal any foul is dangerous.”
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. We can never lose sight of those players on the pitch because they understand time and space and we have to try to take that away. We've gotten a few looks at him this year – doesn't make the next task any easier,” he added. “We have a lot of respect for them, they’re the champions. He's a big part of it, but we’re up for that challenge.”