Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls are facing tricky juggling acts over the next few days, with both clubs balancing MLS matchups this weekend with the start of their respective Concacaf Champions League semifinal series early next week.
Toronto will get things going on Friday against Real Salt Lake at BMO Field (MLS LIVE; TSN1). New York will follow on Saturday with a road test at Orlando (1 pm ET | UniMás, Twitter; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada). Both teams will then transition from MLS action to CCL play, with TFC set to welcome Club América to Ontario next Tuesday and the Red Bulls scheduled to begin their semifinal against Chivas in Guadalajara next Wednesday.
Though the clubs re-scheduled MLS matches that were slated for next weekend to later in the year to better handle the two-legged CCL semis, the fixture congestion will remain a challenge for both.
TFC had last weekend off but are 0-2-0 in MLS play. Starting the season with three straight losses wouldn’t exactly be a death knell, but it’d be far from ideal for the 2017 treble winners and would mark the first time a defending champion has lost three straight to start a season, per Elias Sports Bureau. A result on Friday against RSL would be a solid springboard into Leg 1 against Club América. Head coach Greg Vanney, who didn’t rotate his squad much between MLS and CCL games earlier this year, could use close to a first-choice lineup in both matches.
“All of these games early in the season are important, but you need to try to find your highest possible level when you’re playing in the Champions League because it’s going to take that in order to win it,” Vanney told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Wednesday. “We’re going to continue to play the guys we think are ready to play and anybody we think maybe is a little bit much to get them from Friday to Tuesday or anything like that, then they would be in consideration for limited minutes or not playing [on Friday]. But at the same time, our objective is to put a team out there to try to win both these games.”
Toronto defenders Justin Morrow and Chris Mavinga may not be able to go all the way in both matches. Both went out injured in the second leg of TFC’s CCL quarterfinal win against Tigres on March 14 and didn’t make the 18 for their 1-0 loss at Montreal on March 17. Morrow (calf) hasn’t yet returned to full training, while Mavinga (hernia) has trained fully on certain days over the last week and partially on others. Vanney said both are “questionable to probable” for Friday’s game against RSL but will likely be fully available for Leg 1 against America.
Vanney said that midfielder Victor Vazquez, who Toronto signed to a contract extension last week, has been training fully all week and will be available for both matches. Vazquez had been dealing with a back injury.
Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been a bit more liberal in rotating his squad than Vanney. The Red Bulls have used their depth to great effect early in 2018, getting contributions from all over their roster in their two CCL series wins and during their 2-1-0 start in MLS. They might have to rely on that again on Saturday afternoon in Orlando, particularly after star midfielder Tyler Adams went 90 minutes for the US in their win against Paraguay and Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murillo played for their countries on Tuesday.
“We do have a few days in between matches, it is a 1 o’clock game so there is plenty of time for guys to regenerate,” Marsch told reporters on Wednesday. “So we will have to be smart about which guys we push and which guys will be rested to make sure that we are ready for Wednesday’s match. We have a little bit of a plan, but I think we have to go through the week and see how guys are feeling and get guys back from international break and then make sure we put a team on the field that goes after the Orlando points and can turn around to get ready for Wednesday.”
Both teams will fly charter to Mexico. According to a club spokesperson, the Red Bulls will travel to Orlando on Friday, play the Lions on Saturday, train in Florida on Sunday, fly to Guadalajara on Monday afternoon and charter back to New York after Wednesday’s first leg. They’re traveling a larger-than-normal squad to accommodate for the multiple full training sessions they’ll run during the trip.
Following Leg 1 against América next Tuesday, TFC will recuperate in Toronto on Wednesday before flying charter to Mexico City next Thursday ahead of Leg 2 on April 10.
Both teams are flying to Mexico a few days ahead of time in order to better acclimate to the altitude in Guadalajara (5,138 feet above sea level) and Mexico City (elevation: 7,382 feet).
New York didn’t train at significant altitude in preseason, but they did play over 4,000 feet above sea level when they lost at RSL on March 17. They flew to Utah two days before that match and held a light training session in Salt Lake the day before the game, just as they’ll do ahead of Leg 1 at Chivas. That itinerary, and how the players adapted to it, informed the club’s Guadalajara travel plans, the spokesman told MLSsoccer.com.
Toronto have more experience at high altitude this year. TFC spent over a week in preseason training in Mexico City, where they acclimated to the elevation and played Club América in a friendly, losing 6-3.
That final score wasn’t entirely indicative of how the match played out. TFC’s starters actually took a 2-0 lead over America’s first-team in the first of three 30-minute periods before América’s reserves made a late comeback from 3-2 down to defeat a Toronto team that was still building fitness.
Vanney said that the friendly match should help both TFC and América in their preparations for Leg 1, though he noted that Toronto will have to re-acclimate to altitude once they arrive in Mexico City.
They’ve integrated some types of altitude training into their workload this week, but they don’t have any way to fully prepare for the elevation they’ll face at Estadio Azteca on April 10. While the altitude effects may have long since worn off, the knowledge gained on that preseason trip to Mexico should help TFC get through Leg 2 in a couple of weeks.
“We’ve had enough guys go through that experience to know what their bodies will go through or what they’ll feel as they play in that environment,” Vanney said. “They understand what that looks like and how you push through it and all those kinds of things. There’s a part of it of also that’s just understanding that you just got to keep pushing yourself through some of that feeling like you can’t get oxygen and you’ll still be OK on the other side. We had a lot of guys that were able to do that.”