Nashville SC

Toronto FC preview: Q&A with Neil Davidson

Chris Mavinga header photo courtesy Major League Soccer/Philadelphia Union

To get the latest intel in Toronto FC, I caught up with Neil Davidson, who covers the Reds for The Canadian Press. Read Neil’s take on some of the key storylines surrounding the Supporters’ Shield runners-up.

Tim Sullivan: The recent history in Toronto has been “good when healthy, but not fully healthy often enough.” What’s the current health status of the team?

Neil Davidson: “The question-marks are attacking midfielder Pablo Piatti (who has missed the last four games), midfielder Marky Delgado (missed last three) and fullback Justin Morrow (missed the last two, played just 104 minutes in last eight games). Coach Greg Vanney has been coy in recent days about their health, saying only they are closer and he will have more bodies available than last time out. Piatti is a big miss, having developed a good relationship on the right side with Alejandro Pozuelo. Delgado is an unsung hero in the midfield, helping connect the dots. Morrow’s absence reduces Toronto’s experience and savvy but Richie Laryea has proved his worth this season.”

TS: Alejandro Pozuelo has been a star basically since the first time he stepped onto the field for TFC. What does he do within the system that allows him to be so successful?

ND: “When Toronto is at its best, it moves the ball quickly up the field. If that happens, Pozuelo has time, opportunity and vision to find runners in space. And with Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore (when healthy), he has powerful targets. The Spaniard can unlock defences and is a scoring threat himself, especially from the penalty spot where is a lock.”

TS: With aging stars and some talented young prospects, is Toronto FC on the verge of turning over a new generation or changing of the guard? What’s the next phase if so (or if not!)?

ND: “Toronto’s roster is filled with young talent. Eleven of the 32 players listed on the first-team roster are 22 or younger. More than a few have got a taste this season although the minutes have been limited. Striker Ayo Akinola, 20, has had a breakthrough year and, when healthy, is a force. Loanee Liverpool fullback Tony Gallacher, 21, has got better with each every outing when given the chance. Midfielder Ralph Priso, 18, has looked right at home in lmiited appearances. Jayden Nelson, another 18-year-old midfielder, brings great pace. Most of the youngsters are still green and need time, however. But the future is bright.”

TS: For all the talk about the Reds’ attack, we don’t hear a ton about the defenders. How has that unit performed this year, and who has been the key player to those performances?

ND: “French centre back Chris Mavinga is the key. His athleticism and speed allow him to clean up his and others’ mistakes. He also adds to the backline as a left-footer. Veteran Omar Gonzalez is solid but lacks pace. Brazil’s Auro, Justin Morrow, Richie Laryea and Tony Gallacher provide excellent options at fullback. Quentin Westberg is a reliable goalkeeper who is a good shot-stopper. Opposition goals have often started farther upfield, with giveaways that leave the Toronto defence vulnerable.”

TS: How has the team handled its residency in Hartford? Have they been able to succeed without a true homefield advantage?

ND: “Hard to tell from a distance but the club appears to have done all it can to make it home. The players say the hotel, food etc have been excellent. They have access to UConn’s basketball facility across the street, using it to shoot hoops or play ball hockey.  As a franchise, TFC is renowned for looking after its players, staff and families. During the pandemic, that has included flying in relatives to help look after the family while players are away, delivering meals and even helping with pet care. The club has also done its best to get the players home when possible. Captain Michael Bradley says spending time with loved ones in Toronto from Decision Day to the playoff opener has been ‘huge.’ They will spend the rest of the playoffs in Hartford, however.

“Bottom line, what Toronto has achieved having to play all but four games away from BMO Field during the regular season is pretty remarkable.”

TS: How do you expect the game to play out?

ND: “The rest will do Toronto a lot of good after losing three of its last four with some key pieces missing. While the roster may not be completely fit, most of the pieces will be in place Tuesday. And Toronto is comfortable in big-game situations. TFC respects Nashville, especially its commitment to defence, but the Canadian club has shown this year it can grind out wins. TFC has been exposed on set pieces in the past, so that might bear watching. The club also has a painful penalty shootout history, losing the 2016 MLS Cup final, the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League final and 2019 Canadian Championship final.”

Many thanks to Neil for his expertise from north of the border. Make sure to follow him on the social media machines for everything you need to know on TFC.

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