There's no place like home.
Though the season is nearly a month long, it isn't until the home matches come that it truly feels like it has begun.
Toronto FC have already played three matches this year, but with all having been on the road, home town fans are eager to welcome the side back to BMO Field on Friday night with the first of seventeen matches, this one against Sporting KC.
It will be cold, so dress warm, be prepared for precipitation of one kind or another, but for a side that began the last two campaigns with extended travels due to stadium renovations, getting back in front of their supporters so early will be a welcome change, regardless of what mother nature has in store.
WTR's Mitchell Tierney has written about how, given the success of last season, TFC's home record was less than stellar and how a side that has aspirations of the Supporters’ Shield must make hay while the sun shines, or, to put it in a more soccer-specific parlance, put points on the board when playing at home.
With that in mind, the next month offers TFC a wonderful chance to shake off the cobwebs of 2016's end and lay down the gauntlet, offering a statement of intent to the rest of the league: that they are a force to be reckoned with; that any side hoping to lift silverware this season must come through Toronto.
It is useful to look at any season as a series of phases. Though the frame of reference can change as games move from future to past, grouping into sections provides a chance to analyze more specifically, setting and measuring targets, adjusting and refocusing as the year moves along.
The first phase of the 2017 season for TFC was the three road games, from which the club collected a respectable five points, while admittedly not looking at their best.
With the dawn of May comes the third phase of the season, that dastardly fixture pile-up, that between league and cup competition will see the club play 10 matches between April 28 and June 3, a span of some 37 days. Beyond that lies the Gold Cup pause, then the summer slog, before the run in to the playoffs commences.
This second phase though provides the aforementioned opportunity. Five of the next six matches will be played in Toronto. Fifteen points are on offer.
It will by no means be an easy stretch. Up first are Sporting Kansas City, as tenacious of an opponent as MLS can offer. They have conceded just once through three matches and will be eager to have a go at one of the MLS Cup finalists from last season.
After that lies expansion side Atlanta United, the upstarts who, after dropping their opening match in the final minutes, have strolled to a pair of impressive wins, outscoring their opponents, Minnesota United and Chicago Fire, 10-1 in the process.
Then comes a trip to Ohio for the first of three Trillium Cup matches against the Columbus Crew before returning back home to face a Bastian Schweinsteiger-infused Chicago, the turnaround Houston Dynamo, and Orlando City, with their contingent of Canadian talent – former Red Will Johnson and Cyle Larin – who will be eager to ruin the party.
“It's an opportunity to build some energy, [build on] some of the attacking things that we think we can improve upon, [and] remain stingy about how we defend. [It's about] evolving as a group and taking each of these games, learning, growing from them,” said Greg Vanney from training on Tuesday. “Each of the [games] are assessments, building blocks, as we approach the season.”
“It's a good stretch,” added Vanney. “An opportunity to get more faces on the field, get them prepared for a busy month.”
While Justin Morrow wouldn't label this stretch crucial, he did say it was “very important”.
“We have a lot of games coming in May and, for me, the summer time is always the most challenging in MLS. That's when, as a roster, [you] face the most difficulties, in terms of injuries, absences,” continued Morrow. “It will be important for us to pick up points before then.”
By the time the ninth game of the 2017 season has been played, TFC will have five home matches, and any points accumulated in them, under their belts. It is a radical change from the past two years, where nine games in they would have been desperately anticipating the home opener.
A good run of form would provide a boost, while establishing a cushion of sorts for the uncertainty that lies ahead. Clearly it is still early in the season to be overly focused on October implications, but points won now count no less than those in seemingly more crucial times.
“Home games are always important, especially when you have a bunch in a row.,” stated Drew Moor on Tuesday. “At this point in the season, teams leave points out there [and] don't feel like it's a big deal, but it can be huge come the end of the season; for playoff seeding, supporters shield.”
It could be argued that Toronto's inability to make the most out of a run of home games, collecting just three of a possible 12 points from a four-game stand last fall, cost them a shot at the Eastern Conference regular season lead and Supporters’ Shield.
Much will be made of the emotion and the energy of revisiting the site of that penalty kick shootout in last season's MLS Cup that ended the playoff run of last season. But, as had been emphasized by players and coaches alike this week, last season is in the past.
For this season, some final words of advice from Moor seem apt: “Take it one game at a time; make your home field a fortress.”
Toronto FC's aim to do so begins on Friday.
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