Toronto FC faces another top challenge in New York City FC at Citi Field

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Toronto FC will be looking to hit a home run when the club travels to Citi Field on Sunday night to face New York City FC. A home run in terms of picking up a victory and three points.

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Citi Field is, of course, the home of the baseball Mets, but will be converted into a soccer pitch for Sunday’s match between the two Eastern Conference rivals. NYCFC, the defending MLS Cup champions, normally hosts its games at Yankee Stadium.

The dimensions at both stadiums are different than a normal soccer pitch so the Reds will have to adjust.

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“It’s not ideal. When a field is smaller, the windows are tight, they close a little faster,” TFC coach Bob Bradley said. “Every play, you have to think a little bit quicker. One of the things we would always hope is that we’re finding ways to push the tempo of training so that we are getting more and more players who can think quickly. It’s one of the most important ways that a player improves. It’s a little bit more of a focus as you get ready to play the game in that kind of field.”

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The Reds are unbeaten in four heading into Sunday’s match, with three straight wins at home. Toronto earned its third win of the season last Saturday, defeating the Philadelphia Union 2-1, and have 11 points through seven matches this season, one more than they had after 14 matches in 2021.

The Reds have lost only two of their 10 away matches against NYCFC (W3 D5, including playoffs), including going unbeaten in their past four visits (W2 D2) to the Big Apple. In the 2019 MLS playoffs, TFC defeated NYCFC 2-1 at Citi Field in a thrilling game to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Bronx Blues are also on a roll, coming off a 6-0 win over Real Salt Lake at home last weekend — equaling the largest margin of victory in the club’s MLS history. Taty Castellanos scored four goals and Thiago Andrade added two for NYCFC — Castellanos becoming the first player in NYCFC’s MLS history to score four in a match. The Argentine forward has scored 26 goals since the start of last season, more than any other player in the league in that time (including playoffs).

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“We know they have a very good team. (But) we like to play against them because they have a similar style as us,” TFC midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo said. “They like to play, they like to have the ball, so it’s going to be difficult to play there, but it’s a good challenge for us to go there and win the game.

“These are two teams that have identities, two teams that, when they have the ball, have ideas on how they can go forward, create chances, score goals,” Bradley added. “Over the years, there’s been so many talented, exciting, smart players from both teams, so I think for sure it always means it’s going to be a really good match.”

The game could represent the 300th played by midfielder Jonathan Osorio for the Reds. However, the Brampton native suffered a thigh injury in last Saturday’s victory over the Union and Bradley said that he is uncertain if Osorio can play.

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The Reds will also be without fullback Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and midfielders Ralph Priso and Noble Okello because of injuries while forward Jayden Nelson is on a red-card suspension, picked up against Philly last week.

As for forward Ayo Akinola, the club’s co-leading scorer from 2020, Bradley said the Brampton native is “getting closer”. Akinola suffered a season-ending knee injury last July.

“He was part of the game day roster last week (and) I believe that will be true again” the coach said. “I spoke to him before training (Friday). His confidence in him this week is up a notch. It’s coming. But it’s not clear to me if it’s this week or not. Young players coming back from big injuries, it’s got to be that we’re all on the same page. We don’t want to make that player feel like we are pushing him before the confidence is right. But we’re getting closer and I can see why he tells me he’s more confident. But I know he also says, ‘Look it’s getting better, but maybe we’re not quite there.’ We’ll see.”

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NYCFC are expected to be without key veterans Anton Tinnerholm, Maxime Chanot and Maxi Moralez. As for Castellanos, Bradley said it’s about more than just trying to neutralize one guy.

“It’s more about the game as a whole,” he said. “It’s about how we still find ways to step up and make their buildup a little bit more difficult. It’s about our ability with the ball. When NYC is at their best, they push teams back. They have a good way to play from the back and they push you deep and then they’re able to take advantage of that. Castellanos has good movement. He’s a threat in all ways. He’s a top striker in the league.”

Bradley would like nothing better than to earn another win against a premier MLS team. The Union, which lost to the Reds last Saturday, were the only undefeated MLS team.

“(It’s) another big test for (us),” Bradley said. “So every time you have the chance to show that you’re making progress, show that you can beat a big team, show that you can win an important away game, those are all things that you keep trying to throw out there and see if everybody’s ready for the next step.

“I know guys are excited. We have a lot of respect (for them). NYCFC is a good team.”

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