A familiar face will stand in the way of Toronto FC and a much-needed win amid a tightly-contested Major League Soccer playoff race.
Former TFC star Alejandro Pozuelo will lead eighth-seeded Inter Miami CF against visiting Toronto Saturday night in a matchup between two teams sitting just outside the Eastern Conference post-season picture.
Pozuelo, who was traded to Miami July 7, will present challenges for his former teammates, despite their familiarity with his game.
"Very good player, won the MVP (in 2020) for a reason," said TFC defender Richie Laryea. "We know a lot of his tendencies so hopefully we're able to nullify (him) and make sure he has a quiet night. We're looking forward to the matchup and I'm sure he is as well."
Sitting in 11th and three points out of a spot in the playoffs, Toronto (8-12-6) is coming off a 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution on Wednesday.
Despite extending its unbeaten streak to five games, TFC was disappointed with its result as the next eight games become of further importance with eyes on a return to the playoffs.
"This game is massive," said Laryea. "I think all of us are looking forward to the match after (Wednesday left) a little bit of a bitter taste in all of our mouths. We wanted three points."
The two teams will be meeting each other for the first time this season after Miami went 3-0-0 against TFC last year.
Miami (9-10-6) currently sits in eighth place, in a three-way tie for 33 points with Cincinnati (8-8-9) and Orlando (9-10-6), which holds the seventh and final playoff spot. Orlando owns the tiebreaker over Miami having won their lone meeting this season.
Toronto has become a far stronger offensive team with the acquisitions of Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.
The team has outscored its opponents 13-6 during its five-game unbeaten run, dating back to July 23 when the Italians made their debuts.
"The football that we're trying to play and what we're trying to do — it's pretty clear," said midfielder Michael Bradley on Wednesday night. "We're trying to make more of our football to score more goals, to create more big chances to reward ourselves more."
In order to win and earn three points, Toronto will need to finish better than it did against New England, a game in which TFC missed on numerous scoring opportunities.
"This idea that we can be sharper … when we're around the box, even when they've got a lot of numbers there, that we can find ways to get through, that we can move defenders, that we can open up little spaces and take advantage of that," head coach Bob Bradley said following his team's draw.
"Those are things that I think we're capable of as a team."
Mental preparation for such a playoff push does not faze Toronto, in the eyes of forward Ayo Akinola.
"I think it puts more pressure on them — puts more pressure on the teams who are on top of us," he said following Wednesday's game. "I think if we come into the mentality that we're coming to beat them, we (can) climb the standings more and more.
"We just needed to create finishing, but I'm pretty sure it's not going to be like (that) almost every game — we're gonna finish our chances when we have the opportunity. I feel pretty good about us."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2022.
Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press