TFC notebook: Reds must get back to being ‘difficult to play against’

FC Dallas forward Maximiliano Urruti celebrates his goal against Toronto FC during first half action at BMO Field on Friday, May 25,18. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Toronto FC was back in training on Tuesday ahead of its road game against the Columbus Crew this weekend.

Here are some news and notes from the day’s practice.

BEING DIFFICULT TO PLAY AGAINST

Last Friday’s 1-0 home loss to FC Dallas was a huge disappointment for TFC as they outshot, out-chanced and outplayed their opponents from Texas, only to come away with nothing.

The loss was TFC’s seventh of the campaign — they only lost five times in MLS in 2017 — and it also put a little bit more pressure on the Reds in the immediate future as their next five games are all against Eastern Conference rivals, with three of them on the road.

How does Toronto plan to approach this challenging portion of the schedule?

Greg Vanney has stressed the importance of starting games with a greater sense of urgency and intensity, something his team has lacked this campaign. Toronto coughed up an early goal against Dallas, and has now conceded seven goals in the opening 15 minutes of five games across MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League in 2018. That has to change.

Towards that end, Vanney wants his side to adopt the same approach it used in the CONCACAF Champions League, which stressed being defensively sound before everything else.

“We have to approach [this five-game set] one at a time, but we also have to understand what the stretch is about. The mentality of how we approach things, the urgency, the attention to defensive details is important, especially being on the road, and the mindset of being hard to play against is an important one for us,” Vanney said.

“When we have that foundation, and that was our foundation in CONCACAF … we knew that defending was going to be real priority in this. Sometimes in MLS, I think that we think we’re just going to outplay the other team and get wins. On some days that works, but on other days it doesn’t work.

“So, we have to get back to this idea of being difficult to play against, defend well, regardless of who the opposition is, and the rest will take care of itself because we have good players to make things happen.”

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MORROW ON THE MEND, INJURY UPDATES

Ailing left fullback Justin Morrow, who has been dealing with a calf strain for over two months, participated in portions of the day’s practice but is not quite ready to return to full training, and won’t be able to play in Saturday’s road game versus Columbus. That said, the fact Morrow was out with his teammates on Tuesday is a positive sign that he is making progress.

Morrow has made one MLS appearance for the Reds, starting in the season opener. He also played in both legs of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Mexican club Tigres in mid-March, but he’s been out of commission ever since.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m feeling stronger every day,” Morrow told Sportsnet. “I don’t want to say [when I’ll be able to come back] because every time I’ve told somebody, I’ve had a setback. This time, I’m just going to let it go and not jinx it.”

Defender Chris Mavinga was subbed out of the Dallas match with a hamstring issue just before halftime. He didn’t train on Tuesday, and Vanney said he wasn’t actually sure about his status going forward.

“He’s dealing with competing issues right now … We’re trying to take care of the underlying cause at the same time as keeping him healthy. I don’t really know what his timeline [to return] looks like,” Vanney admitted.

Midfielder Ager Aketxe (hip flexor) and defender Eriq Zavaleta (quad) also did not train on Tuesday. Both sat out the Dallas game. Zavaleta could return versus Columbus, but Aketxe is likely a few weeks away from returning, according to Vanney.

Canadian defender Ashtone Morgan has been absent for two games with a hamstring strain, while midfielder Nico Hasler has missed the last four MLS matches with a quad strain. Both trained on Tuesday, and Vanney hinted they could be available to play on the weekend.

Forward Jozy Altidore (foot) and defender Drew Moor (quad tear) remain out long-term.

I spoke one-on-one with Justin Morrow after practice about his lengthy injury absence and much more. Look for my story on the TFC defender on Sportsnet.ca on Wednesday.

BONO DEBUTS FOR U.S.

Starting goalkeeper Alex Bono made his international debut on Monday, earning a clean sheet for the U.S. in a 3-0 win over Bolivia in Chester, Pa.

Bono missed the Dallas game while away on international duty, but he has already returned to Toronto — he won’t travel to Europe with the U.S. team for their friendlies against Ireland (June 2 in Dublin) and France (June 9 in Lyon). Michael Bradley and fellow midfielder Marky Delgado won’t be called up by the U.S. for the two upcoming.

“It’s great for him to get his first cap. It’s a great feeling. I’m sure there was a lot of pride for him to go out there and to get a shutout,” Vanney said of Bono’s debut for the U.S.

TFC PLAYERS GET CHAMPIONSHIP RINGS

On Monday, TFC players and staff received their championship rings from winning last year’s MLS Cup final during a special ceremony held at Casa Loma.

Vanney wasn’t sporting his when speaking to reporters on Tuesday. The rings are very big, and not very practical to wear every day.

“It’s not something you can wear very often. They’re big. It sits on [my] mantle. … There’s the odd occasion where if you wanted to do some curls you could wear it. It’s sizeable and heavy,” Vanney joked.

LOOKING AHEAD TO COLUMBUS

Toronto and Columbus have already met this year, with the Crew earning 1-0 win at BMO Field in the season opener. Saturday’s match will be the final meeting of the campaign between the two sides.

Columbus sits in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 7-3-4 record, seven spots and 15 points ahead of Toronto. The Crew are coming off a 0-0 road draw at Sporting Kansas City. It was a costly point for Columbus as star midfielder Federico Higuain picked up an red card, which means he’ll be suspended for Friday’s contest against TFC.

Higuain has had great success against Toronto over the years, scoring nine goals and adding six assists in 17 regular season matches against the Reds. Also, Crew captain and midfielder Wil Trapp and starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen have been called up by the U.S. team for the upcoming European friendlies, which means they’ll also miss Saturday’s game.

All of those key absences won’t change how TFC approaches this game, though.

“Columbus is who they are. They’ve been that team since [coach Gregg Berhalter] has been there. They’ve been a little more pragmatic this year, as much as they don’t want to admit it, and not quite as idealistic,” Vanney said.

“What Trapp does, someone else will fill in and do similar things. … I don’t think they’ll change [their approach] which means it doesn’t change a whole lot for us.”

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