NYCFC Seeks Validation, Not Revenge vs. Toronto FC

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By CHRISTIAN ARAOS

NYCFC logoPURCHASE, N.Y. — Memories of 2016 did not resonate in the winds above SUNY Purchase. The 5-0 loss at home that ended New York City FC’s 2016 season lives in the record books, far from the conscience. Instead, Wednesday night’s match against Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium looms as a chance for City to prove itself in 2017.

The current NYCFC squad only partly resembles the one that was found wanting during last year’s playoff series. The midfield that decayed toward the end of the season has been effectively replaced and the defense fortified with the additions of Alex Callens and Sean Johnson. Only the likely front three of Thomas McNamara, David Villa and Jack Harrison bear any resemblance to the past.

“It’s not a rematch at all,” Coach Patrick Vieira said. “It’s a completely different game. Last year, there was a big difference between the two teams and the two football clubs. I think we improved a lot. We are a better team than we were last year so it will be a completely different game.”

Vieira spent much of Monday’s training session working with most of the team on building from the back with more fluidity. The Pigeons have largely avoided getting forced into turnovers that lead to chances this season, but it was what Toronto seized upon when it made easy work of them last year. That largely has to do with the additions of Ben Sweat and Callens who are sound defensively and capable of playing with the ball at their feet. R.J. Allen has always been good on the ball but it’s been his work toward removing the defensive errors that plagued him that has him in contention to once again start at right back.

“If we want to win a trophy, if we want a shot at that Supporters Shield, these are the types of games that you need to win,” Allen said. “This is what it’s all about. If you want to win a trophy, these are the games that you need to perform in and these are the games that we need to get three points—especially at home.”

It will be a mostly first-choice starting lineup for NYCFC on Wednesday. Ronald Matarrita is the lone long-term injury while Rodney Wallace (Costa Rica) and Miguel Camargo (Panama) are with their national teams at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Their teams will play each other Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were called into the United States team for the second game of the doubleheader at Lincoln Financial Field (against El Salvador) and will miss Wednesday’s game for Toronto. Vieira said he is expecting them to be replaced by hungry players.

“The biggest mistake that we can make is that because these two players are going to the national team that the game will be easy for us,” Vieira said. “There are no easy games in this league, especially against Toronto. I believe that Toronto has one of the best, if not the best, roster in this league so they can allow themselves to lose one or two players.”

As Bradley and Altidore join the U.S. team, Johnson has left it. Johnson, along with Brad Guzan, were replaced by Coach Bruce Arena for the tournament’s knockout stages. Johnson did not play during the group stage, which disappointed Vieira who still said he was happy for him to have gotten the call-up. Johnson said he was satisfied with his time there and with the chance to meet the U.S. coaching staff. Now he returns to NYCFC (10-6-3, 33 points) looking to affirm the ambition that drew him to the club this offseason.

“We’re in the right mindset, we have to take it one game at a time,” Johnson said. “First up is a team that’s been really good in Toronto on Wednesday and we have to really focus and train the next couple of days and prepare for them. We have to stick to the principles and objectives that we want to carry out and achieve. If we do that, we’ll be fine but it’s about the mindset and effort.”

Wednesday’s game is the first of two against Toronto (11-3-5, 38) in the next four weeks and the first against the league’s top-two teams this week. Johnson said he did not have his mind on Saturday and the meeting with his former team, the Chicago Fire (11-3-5, 38). Neither did any one else. But the month ahead for NYCFC will determine just how seriously they are taken as contenders in 2017.

“We had a tough way to understand what it took to win or to be in the final or to be in the playoffs,” Vieira said. “That game was a good learning process to see how we wanted to rebuild the team and what we needed to improve. People think it was a setback but we learned about ourselves as a football club and a team. That’s why we brought 12 new players and improved the team so that is why it will be good to see where we are as a team compared to last year.”