TORONTO — While politicians and MLSE executives declared the newly renovated BMO Field open, coach Greg Vanney was putting Toronto FC through its paces Friday at the club's well-appointed practice facility 20 kilometres north.
Vanney's team has been making its statement on the pitch for weeks now, collecting 11 points on a marathon eight-game road trip as workers put the final touches to the two-year, $150-million stadium renovations.
Toronto (3-3-2) is forging an identity built around a well-disciplined defence and opportunistic attack. And Vanney promises more of the same Saturday night when it finally takes the field for its home opener against FC Dallas (5-3-2).
"The plan is to be not too far away from what we've been doing but have our moments and be good, to get the crowd behind us and really get the stadium rocking if we can," he said.
Having yielded just seven goals, Toronto ranks first in the league in goals conceded at just 0.88 a game. Last season, Toronto tied Chicago and New York City with an MLS-worst 58 goals against (1.71 a game).
Goalkeeper Clint Irwin has been a commanding figure in his penalty box with Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow and Damien Perquis forming a dependable, resilient back four.
Captain Michael Bradley and Will Johnson have done the dirty work in midfield with little fanfare. Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio and rookie Tsubasa Endoh have done their share of defending while looking to connect with strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
Giovinco continues to spark the offence, scoring six goals and assisting on Toronto's other three. Altidore has perhaps yet to assert his full presence in a TFC jersey but is throwing his weight around and helping create for others.
Still, Giovinco's genius aside, the offence remains a work in progress.
With 10 defenders on its 26-man roster, Toronto likely also needs to tweak its positional menu. Loaning out some of its defenders is one option to get some young players needed minutes.
Depth, especially up front, will be tested in the summer as international teams come calling for their talent. And the prospect of injuries to key players like Giovinco and Bradley must send shudders down the team braintrust's spine.
Bradley along with Johnson and Moor, both captains at their former clubs, provide experience and leadership. Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, TFC appears a team comfortable in its own skin.
The players seem on the same page, with Moor repeating Bradley's message that it cannot abandon what has made it successful "which is being difficult to play against."
Built in 2007 on a shoestring budget of $62.9 million, BMO Field now sports a canopy over the east, west and south stands as well as a new sound and lighting system thanks to the latest round of renovations. It has also been configured to accommodate CFL football.
Vanney says it is a unique design — "one of the best stadiums in the league, if not the (best)."
Saturday's home opener is a sellout of 30,000.
On Friday, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum welcomed dignitaries and media back "to our new and spectacular BMO Field"
Speaking to TFC fans, he called the new stadium "a symbol of our shared commitment to bring the very best to Toronto and to one day celebrate championships here with you."
Some supporters have been vocal in their displeasure at having to share their home with the Argonauts. While Saturday marks the home opener, they will likely have to wait until June when the CFL team kicks off its season to see if the shared stadium really does come at a cost.
The TFC players have already given the stadium a thumbs-up. Moor called Thursday's evening training session under the lights "special for all of us."
"Bello," said Giovinco, who told one club official that the BMO Field surface is among the best he has ever played on.
With an all-time home record of 55-45-45 in league play, with 18 of those wins coming in the last two seasons, Toronto — as a franchise — has a ways to go to turn BMO Field into the "fortress" its marketing arm loves to call it. But this version is helping turn the tide.
Saturday, the first of four straight home games, comes with a stiff test in the form of FC Dallas (5-3-2).
Oscar Pareja's team, despite speed to kill on the counter-attack, has had an up-and-down start to the season. It has lost its last two games — outscored a combined 7-0 on the road by Vancouver and the Red Bulls — after reeling off a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2).
Dallas ranks sixth in the league in goals per game (1.50) but stands 17th in goals allowed (1.70). But of its 17 goals conceded, 12 have come in its three losses.
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