Toronto FC learns rest of revamped MLS schedule, with busy October ahead

Toronto FC learned Tuesday what lies ahead in the rest of the pandemic-rejigged MLS regular season.

Seven matches in October and two in November. Six “home” games in East Hartford, Conn. A steady diet of Eastern Conference opponents.

On the plus side, coach Greg Vanney gave a thumbs-up to the facilities in their Hartford home away from home, talking up the team’s hotel and food as well as Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field, where TFC will play home games due to border restrictions limiting U.S. teams from coming north.

“The setup’s been great … No complaints,” Vanney said Tuesday. “We’re just obviously away from family and all that, which we have to manage and work through while we’re on the road.”

As Toronto (6-2-4) prepared for its third meeting with New York City FC this year —Wednesday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. — the league released the last chunk of the regular-season schedule.

Toronto will play a 23-game season campaign, rather than the normal 34. TFC will finish out the regular season at the New York Red Bulls on Decision Day, Nov. 8.

Unless something drastic changes with COVID-19, TFC will finish the regular season having played just four of those 23 games at BMO Field.

Tough match on deck

Toronto faces a difficult opponent in NYCFC (5-5-2) on Wednesday.

The New Yorkers are unbeaten in six games (4-0-2) — a stretch that has seen them concede just two goals. NYCFC ranks second in the league on defence, yielding 0.75 goals a game, which has helped cover up the fact it is tied for 22nd on offence in averaging 0.83 goals a game.

In contrast, Toronto is tied for ninth on offence (1.67 goals a game) and seventh on defence (1.17).

“They’re a good team. They have quality players,” Vanney said. “They have good structure that they play from. I think defensively they’ve become a little more aggressive from the front than they were at the beginning of the season.”

Toronto defeated NYCFC 1-0, on an 81st-minute goal by rookie Ifunanyachi Achara, when the two teams met at BMO Field on March 7 prior to the pandemic shutdown. The New Yorkers had their revenge at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida, dispatching Toronto 3-1 in the round of 16 on July 26 (a game that did not count in the regular-season standings).

“They wanted the game more than we wanted the game … We got outcompeted in too many situations for too long throughout the game,” said Vanney. “That’s something that has to change.”

Toronto ended NYCFC’s playoff hopes last year with a 2-1 win in the Eastern Conference semifinal, thanks to a late penalty by Alejandro Pozuelo. The teams also met at the same stage of the playoffs in 2016 with Toronto winning the two-game tie 7-0 on aggregate thanks to a 5-0 shellacking at Yankee Stadium.

Defence to be crucial

After shooting itself in the foot with two gifted goals in a 2-2 tie with D.C. United last time out, Toronto is looking to tighten up its game against NYCFC.

“Even though they’re not scoring a lot of goals, they’ve got good players,” said Vanney. “We’ve got to manage those players. We’ve got to manage their movements and protect our goal and not give away silly things to a very good team.

“We’ve got to be more reliable in making plays. Making it more difficult for teams to work to score goals.”

The respect goes both ways.

“A tough game, a good team,” said Ronny Delia, NYCFC’s Norwegian coach. “Everybody knows what Toronto is. It’s going to be big test for us.”

After Wednesday, Toronto will play Columbus, Philadelphia, the Red Bulls, Atlanta, NYCFC and Miami in Hartford with away games at New England, FC Cincinnati, Philadelphia and the Red Bulls.

“Life in a hotel … The setup is nice, the hotel is nice. It’s just a longer road trip,” said goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, like Vanney a father of four.

Vanney says the hope is Toronto may be able to return for a couple of days — under quarantine — if the schedule permits. The club has a five-day window between the Sept. 27 game against Columbus and the Oct. 3 date against Philadelphia, both in Hartford.

“It would be a way of ‘Catch your breath, say hello and then out you go again,”‘ Vanney said.

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