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With three straight games upcoming against MLS clubs that are struggling, Toronto FC has to make some hay while the sun is shining.
“I didn’t know the sun came out here,” quipped new TFC centre back Shane O’Neill on Friday, alluding to the fact that’s it’s been a cold, wet and miserable spring in Toronto so far.
O’Neill was joking, but it will be no joke if TFC (3W 3L 2D) fails to take advantage of the next three games against clubs that are sitting on the bottom of their respective conferences – starting with a home match on Saturday afternoon at BMO Field against FC Cincinnati (2W 5L 1D), followed by a rematch on Wednesday at Cincy and then a game next Saturday at Vancouver Whitecaps (1W 6L 1D).
TFC is coming off a wild 5-4 loss to New York City FC last Sunday, a defeat that snapped a three-game win streak. However, a victory on Saturday would mean four straight home wins for the Reds.
FC Cincinnati has just one point from its last four games and is tied for last in the MLS Eastern Conference but is coming off a close 2-1 loss to a good LAFC side on the weekend. Luciano Acosta scored his second goal of the season in Cincy’s loss to LAFC and is one of three Cincinnati players with a goal this season (excluding own goals), the fewest players with a goal of any MLS team this season.
Under new coach Pat Noonan, the Orange and Blue showed promise early in the season, recording back to back wins in March, but have hit a wall in their last four, though they are currently missing several regulars including Ronald Matarrita, who recently underwent ankle surgery, and Ray Gaddis with a leg injury. Cincy’s leading goal scorer Brandon Vazquez is questionable for Saturday’s match with a leg injury.
“It’s going to be a tough game. I think (Cincy) is going to be a team that’s going to compete really hard,” said O’Neill, who joined TFC after spending the last two seasons with the Seattle Sounders. “I think for us it’s going to be really important at home to impose ourselves and play at a tempo and pace that we want to play at.”
From what O’Neill and Bradley have seen, despite the record, Cincinnati look like a more confident side this year.
“I think they have a little bit more belief and they’re probably going to come out pretty quickly and we’ve got to make sure that we match the intensity and we set the tone at home,” said O’Neill. “It’s important that Forward Jayden Nelson should be back in the lineup for TFC after the Brampton native missed the NYCFC match because of a red card suspension. Full back Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Noble Okello are still out with lower body injuries and Bradley said full back Jacob Shaffelburg is questionable after “feeling a little something” in training this week. Midfielder Ralph Priso will be on the bench for
Saturday’s match. Forward Ayo Akinola, who underwent ACL surgery last July and hasn’t played since, will also dress and is close to playing.
“This was a good week for Ayo. He had his best day on Wednesday. That’s important,” said Bradley. “He was more dynamic, he had more real good actions, he was a threat, he worked harder.”
With a fairly new team that has featured a number of young Canadian players in the lineup, Bradley has the Reds off to a decent start this year after the club went through a miserable 2021 campaign. TFC has scored 15 goals in eight games (second best in the East) this season but have also given up 17 (tied for the most in the East) and have yet to record a clean sheet, which hasn’t all been goalkeeper Alex Bono’s fault by any stretch of the imagination. When asked about those stats, Bradley suggested that he and his staff are looking at the big picture.
“Yes, concerned, but still looking at it from more of a global picture in terms of how we continue to evolve as a team,” said the coach. “I look at it from the standpoint of: ‘Are we growing as a team? What kind of chances do we give up? How many chances do we make?’ And I think we have to continue to grow in those ways. I think when those things get better, we will have more shut-outs, more clean sheets. I think all of us were – if you go back to the first NYCFC game (2-1 win on April 2 when Heber scored for the Blues in added time) – all ticked off to give up a goal late, because of the idea that now you’ve played a good game against a really good team and then you closed it out at the end. That’s a confidence booster. So that’s going to come, but that’s got to come from a product of a lot of different things.
NOTE: Veteran FC Cincinnati midfielder Haris Medunjanin enters Saturday’s game six minutes shy of 12,000 minutes for his MLS career. Should he appear in Saturday’s contest, it will be the 10th time he sees game action against Toronto FC.