After being one of the last teams to get underway in the MLS Is Back tournament, Toronto FC faces a quick turnaround Thursday night when it faces the Montreal Impact in an Orlando version of a Canadian derby.
The Reds (1-0-2) were delayed in their arrival to Orlando after a member of their traveling team showed COVID-19 symptoms and had their initial match in Group C pushed back to Monday. TFC started fast and faded late, getting a first-half brace from Ayo Akinola -- who was set up on both occasions by Alejandro Pozuelo - but playing the entire second half with 10 men in the muggy Orlando after Junior Moreno was booked a second time contributed to them conceding twice after the 84th minute and settling for a 2-2 draw versus D.C. United.
"He was doing fantastic work," Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney told the club's official website about Akinola. "He's really had a great preseason and has worked really hard to get himself fit and to understand what it is that we need him to do up top. And it showed today."
The 20-year-old Akinola is likely to get a second start up front since Jozy Altidore does not appear to be match-fit. The United States international was allowed by the team to arrive to camp late, but that also required a 14-day self-quarantine which restricted him to individual workouts until less than two weeks ago.
"Ayo has had a really, really good stretch," said captain Michael Bradley. "He's fit, he's sharp. He has such a unique package, in terms of being strong, fast, he has good feet, he's smart in how he can move off of the centre-backs."
"When he plays like that there isn't any centre-back who's going to enjoy playing against him," remarked the TFC captain. "Really happy to see him get his reward today and we're going to continue to need him to step up for us in a big way."
Montreal (1-1-1) is looking to play its way back into contention to advance out of the group following a 1-0 loss to New England on Friday. Despite having a majority of possession, Thierry Henry's team failed to make much of it, finishing with only two shots on target and getting outshot 19-7 overall.
"We didn't know where we would be physically for this game, but it's not an excuse," Henry said post-match. "One thing I tell my team all the time is to fight. But that did not happen tonight, and we need to rectify that against Toronto."
"If you don't fight and you don't win battles, you don't even need to talk about tactics. It's about desire. I'm not questioning their desire, but it wasn't there tonight. Hopefully, it will be there against Toronto."
One area that Henry may tweak is selecting either Victor Wanyama or Samuel Piette as the wing back as opposed to them playing side-by-side. Piette, normally a defensive midfielder, did not look all that comfortable adjusting to his new position.Despite having three more days off than Toronto FC, the Impact are not taking considering that to be too much of an advantage since this is a derby matchup.
"Toronto only has three days between games. We feel good about that," defender Rod Fanni told the Montreal Gazette. "I think it's better for us than them. We have more rest than Toronto. It's to our advantage for the moment, but we never know. Sometimes we think we have an advantage and we're surprised."
TFC swept both regular-season meetings, but Montreal gained a measure of revenge by winning the Canadian Championship on penalties to claim a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.