After digging deep into its roster for a midweek friendly against Tottenham, Toronto FC gets back to business Saturday when it hosts defending MLS champion Sporting Kansas City.
Four days later, Toronto wraps up a busy July with a visit to D.C. United (10-5-4), which trails Eastern Conference leader Kansas City (10-5-5) by one point.
It speaks volumes about the turnaround in Toronto FC that midfielder Michael Bradley sees the two games against elite opposition as an opportunity rather than just a chance to see how his team measures against the best in the East.
For Bradley, the K.C. and D.C. contests are a chance to move up the standings. Toronto (7-5-5) has two games in hand on D.C. United and three on Kansas City.
“When you play the teams right around you these are six-point games and so if we can now, over this next week, come out with some good results, then still it gives us a chance to keep the games in hand but move right up the table,” said Bradley. “That’s our goal.
“Seventeen games gone, 17 to go. We feel like it’s been a good first half of the season for us but we still hold the bar high for ourselves and want to continue to move on up.”
Manager Ryan Nelsen says his team continues to be a work in progress.
“Even now, we’re still learning about each other.,” said Nelsen. “I’m still learning about (designated players) Michael and Jermain (Defoe) and Gil(berto). And they’re still learning about us. Are we the finished product? Of course not. We’re nowhere near that. But are we getting better? I think so. We’re evolving quite nicely.”
This year has already been a success compared to previous seasons. Nelsen’s team is headed to a first-ever playoff campaign and has already exceeded the number of wins posted each of the 2007, 2011, 2012 and 2103 seasons. Three more victories and it will match the club single-season record of 10, set in 2009.
With 13 leagues wins in his 1 1/2 seasons, Nelson is already the club leader for managerial victories.
Toronto will have to face Kansas City without Defoe, the star striker who is suspended due to the accumulation of yellow cards. Brazil’s Gilberto is expected to start up front with England’s Luke Moore.
Defoe has 11 of Toronto’s 26 league goals. Next on the list is Moore with three. Gilberto has two, although he has shown signs recently that he is finding his feet in the league after a lengthy scoring drought.
Gilberto attributed to his slow start to the layoff since the Brazilian season ended in December.
“It was tough getting used to the MLS because I’d been off for so long,” the 25-year-old said through an interpreter. “So the road was a little bumpy but now things are starting to progress.”
Is he having fun, he was asked.
“It’s good,” he said in English with a smile.
Bradley says the team is rooting for the likable Brazilian to succeed.
“Sure. He’s a good guy. He’s somebody that has come in and shown such a willingness to work and run and fight and really do everything he can to help the team,” he said.
“We have total confidence in him,” he added.
Bradley did not figure in Toronto’s 3-2 midweek loss to Tottenham as Nelsen looked to give his midfield star time to rest.
Kansas City also played a midweek friendly, losing 4-1 to Manchester City.
Unlike Toronto, K.C. played its first team against the English side. Captain Matt Besler seemed unfazed by the defeat, telling local reporters that the focus was on Toronto — “which is a huge, huge match, probably our biggest of the season so far.”
Nelsen said Brazilian winger Jackson is fit after an Achilles knock and is available for selection. Captain and centre back Steven Caldwell (quad) and right back Mark Bloom (knee) remain out.
Kansas City has not lost in the league since dropping a 1-0 decision to D.C. United on May 13. The champions arrive on a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1).
“They’re a team that grinds out results,” said Nelsen, before delivering one of his biggest compliments. “They’re very good at not playing well and winning.”
Nelsen sees Kansas City as one of the league’s model franchises and values how they got there.
“They’ve done a really good job there,” he said. “I think they went through two or three years of really tough times.
“It’s really easy to see the beacon that they are now but to actually get there, they went through some really hard times. And you kind of have to live that when you’re in the situation that they were and potentially where we were. But they’re an example of a team, like Real Salt Lake, that built it right, built it well. And that gave it longevity. They’ve got a foundation now where they can just spit out these good players because the club’s got such a good, stable foundation.
NOTES: Toronto tied 2-2 at Kansas City earlier in the season in the strength of a stoppage-time goal by Bradley Orr. Toronto’s career record against K.C. is 4-10-5, but it is 3-3-3 at BMO Field.