Greg Vanney looking ahead
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC begin make-or-break stretch against Columbus Crew SC

TORONTO – The next two months will be crucial for the defending MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield Champions.

Anchored near the basement of the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC know that to make amends for a slow start, they must begin to claw their way up the table.

And as they do so, the schedule makers have drawn up quite a gauntlet: seven of the next nine are on the road; the next five, and all but two over this stretch, will be against East opponents.

It is a run that can make or break the season.

“As simple as it sounds, win,” said defender Eriq Zavaleta. “It's a way for us to gain ground on the rest of the field. In the position that we're in, those games become even more important because if teams don't drop points then you can't.”

“And at the same time, get back to feeling confident we can win no matter the circumstances, no matter the place,” continued Zavaleta. “For us, the most important thing we can do is win, in whatever way that might be.”

Through the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs and the run to the 2018 Concacaf Champions League final, the side embraced that idea of 'whatever it takes to win'. In both it served them well; they will be hoping it can do so again.

“It's time,” said defender Nick Hagglund. “Whatever the game throws at us, we have to be ready to attack it. If we have to play ugly and win, it's about getting three points every weekend.”

At the same time, coach Greg Vanney wants to see his side recapture another of the elements that led them to success. The arrival of their championship rings on Monday will help foster those memories.

“The mindset of being hard to play against is important for us,” said Vanney. “In Concacaf, we knew that defending was going to be a real priority. Sometimes in MLS, we think we're going to outplay the other team and get wins.” 

“Some days that works, but on others it doesn't,” continued Vanney. “We've got to get back to this idea, defend well and the rest will take care of [itself] because we've got good players and good ideas to make things happen.”

The 1-0 loss to FC Dallas last Friday was a perfect example of what has been plaguing Toronto. 

TFC controlled much of the match, but a lax passage at the back and profligacy up front led to another defeat. Postmatch, Vanney pinpointed execution, or the lack thereof, as the culprit. 

Another missed penalty kick, saved by Jesse Gonzalez before Dallas scored the game-winner, was emblematic of the situation.

Through 2018, TFC has taken five penalty kicks, scoring only twice; nowhere near the conversation rate that saw them score on seven of 11 attempts in 2017.

“It's an issue,” Vanney said. “It's lumped into the category of us not finishing chances that we should; not scoring goals that can change games. We've got to score more of those, those are gimmes and we're not getting them.”

Having scored on seven of his first eight attempts in his first two seasons, Sebastian Giovinco, who was denied by Gonzalez on Friday, has converted just one of three this season, the same as his rate in 2017. 

Vanney, a penalty taker himself in his LA Galaxy days, remains steadfast that the 'who' is in the hands of the players: “In terms of who takes it, I want somebody to step up who is confident in what they are going to do and put it in the back of the net. It's about stepping up, having a good idea, a plan, and putting it away.”

Toronto will be aiming to put all those pieces together when they travel to Ohio for the first time this year to take on Columbus Crew SC Saturday (7:30 pm ET | TSN 1/3/4/5 - Full TV & Streaming info).