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Oppo Research: 5 Things about Toronto FC

John Molinaro of TFC Republic tells us about Toronto's defensive adjustments, Prince Owusu's fine form, and why Federico Bernardeschi is the X-Factor.

© Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In this edition of Oppo Research, Hudson River Blue spoke with John Molinaro of TFC Republic to learn more about Toronto FC, New York City FC's opponent on Saturday in their second meeting this season. Here is your NYCFC vs Toronto preview.

1. New defensive system is working

Hudson River Blue: Toronto were the worst team in MLS last year, but look completely different this season. The team won three straight MLS games and are third in the Eastern Conference. What’s going so well up in Canada?

John Molinaro: Defensively, they switched from a back four to a three-man center-back system and that’s helped them already record five clean sheets in MLS through 11 games — they only had six all last season. The addition of central midfielder Deybi Flores has also helped the Reds keep things locked down defensively. So, in general, they’ve become a much tougher team to play against.

Also, new coach John Herdman was brought in to change the toxic culture at the club and he’s managed to get all of the players to buy into his vision — even the DPs. There’s a renewed commitment, work ethic, and fighting spirit within the team, even though there wasn’t much roster turnover from last season — which was the worst in franchise history. That says a lot about the job Herdman has done so far, and the respect that the players have for him.

2. Prince Osei Owusu is adapting to MLS

HRB: Prince Osei Owusu appeared in six games last season and didn't find the back of the net, but he scored five goals in 11 appearances this season. What’s working for him now compared to last season?

JM: It takes some foreign players to adjust to life in MLS. Owusu had previously spent his entire club career in his native Germany, so coming to Canada represented some culture shock for him, to be sure. He also had to adapt to the travel, different playing surfaces, and other vagaries of MLS. So, I think he’s starting to adapt. The team is also playing more to his strengths by getting the ball to his feet when he has his back to goal in and around the box, and they’re doing a much better job of delivering crosses into the penalty area, which allows him to take advantage of his size and strength.

3. Toronto must be clinical and urgent on Saturday

HRB: A short-handed NYCFC defeated Toronto 2-1 earlier this season at Yankee Stadium, what can Toronto do differently this time around to get the win?

JM: Show more urgency, for starters. I think TFC were pretty lifeless in that game at Yankee Stadium, and couldn’t even take advantage of Keaton Parks being sent off with 22 minutes left in regulation time. Toronto had some good looks on goal, and Ayo Akinola had a chance to net the equalizer late in the game. But overall, the Red were wasteful with the few scoring chances they produced. So, they have to be more clinical and show some better attacking ideas in the final third this weekend.

4. The X-Factor: Federico Bernardeschi

HRB: What’s the X-factor that could decide this game?

JM: Federico Bernardeschi could be the X-factor for Toronto. He’s coming off a player-of-the-match effort with a brace and an assist in the win against Dallas last weekend. In doing so, he snapped a 19-game goal drought dating back to last summer. Even before the Dallas game, he’s been TFC’s best player this season, displaying renewed commitment and a solid work ethic on both sides of the ball after a lackluster 2023 campaign in which he was rightly criticized by both media and fans. Now that he’s finally scored, I suspect the goals will continue to flow for him.

Bernardeschi's rocket of a goal against FC Dallas

5. Predicted score, Starting XI

HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI? Final score?

JM: Final score prediction: 1-0 for NYCFC.

TFC has a midweek Canadian Cup game, so I think NYCFC are catching them at the right time.