TORONTO — The return of captain Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Justin Morrow from the Gold Cup means three key pieces of the Toronto FC puzzle are back in place.
But roster questions remain for Greg Vanney.
The Toronto coach has a surfeit of talent at centre back with Drew Moor, Nick Hagglund, Eriq Zavaleta and Chris Mavinga, all of whom have seen plenty of time in the back three. With Steven Beitashour still returning from pancreas surgery, the search for a replacement at right fullback continues.
And with Victor Vazquez pulling the strings and Bradley taking his normal place shielding the back three, there is only one midfield spot left open with Marky Delgado having first dibs.
Sunday’s high-profile matchup with New York City FC (11-6-4) should shed some light on Vanney’s thinking as league-leading Toronto (11-3-7) looks to become “the best version of ourselves” in its remaining 13 games.
Vanney offered some insight when asked about his back three after practice Friday.
“I think we have options,” he said. “As guys hopefully stay healthy and continue to progress into the season, it’s going to be what three are going to be the best three? Which guys are the sharpest?
“I know I’m going to have two or three guys every week who are not very happy with me and think they should play. And that’s perfectly fair. But my job is to make sure, as we build towards the playoffs, that each and every game we give ourselves a chance to win and we have our best possible group.”
Hagglund, Moor and Zavaleta were the preferred back three early on but Mavinga found a home on the left side when Hagglund went down with a torn knee ligament. Hagglund returned to action in last week’s 1-1 tie with Colorado with Moor sitting out.
Sunday marks the second meeting between the two teams in 11 days. TFC needed a stoppage-time penalty by Vazquez to snatch a 2-2 tie at Yankee Stadium on July 19 in a game that saw Vanney ejected.
While Toronto thumped NYCFC 7-0 on aggregate in the Eastern Conference semfinals last season, it has never beaten the New Yorkers in regular-season play (0-2-4).
The two teams have developed a keen rivalry, with the NYCFC website seemingly taking a shot at TFC with a reference to facing the “self-proclaimed deepest team in MLS history.”
Vanney, who made the original statement, says he stands by that comment.
New York City FC arrives on a high, having beaten Chicago 2-1 last time out to move within a single point of the second-place Fire in the Eastern Conference. The win snapped Chicago’s 11-game unbeaten run.
Toronto has a streak of its own on the go — unbeaten at home this season (7-0-3). TFC has not lost at BMO Field in regular-season play since a 2-1 loss to D.C. United on Oct. 1, 2016.
New York ranks fifth in the league with a .450 winning percentage away from home (4-5-1).
Bradley called Sunday’s showdown a “huge” game and talked up NYCFC, saying it has built on a fine season last year by becoming more dynamic, more well-rounded and more mobile.
“We know they’ll test us in a big way,” he said.”Having said that we continue to feel very good about the team that we have.
“We feel like when we play well, when we compete at our hardest and at our best, that there isn’t a team in the league who wants to play against us.”
NYCFC has scored in 20 consecutive games since dropping its season opener 1-0 at Orlando back on March 5. They are the 12th team in MLS history to score in at least 20 consecutive regular-season games.
The all-time record is held by D.C. United, who went 52 consecutive games with a goal (from Aug. 27, 1997 to June 13, 1999), including the entire 1998 season.
NYCFC is tied with Atlanta for the league lead with 40 goals. Toronto is tied for fourth at 37.
The game is another welcome chance to see scoring stars Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa in action.
Villa (165) and Giovinco (164) rank first and second in shots on target since joining the league at the start of the 2015 season. Giovinco has 48 goals and 35 assists in 77 regular-season games compared to 55 goals and 19 assists in 83 games for Villa, who comes to Toronto on a four-match scoring streak.
NYCFC will be without suspended midfielder Yangel Herrera. That could open the door for 38-year-old Italian icon Andrea Pirlo to make his 10th start this season.