Fresh from a short stint back home under quarantine, Toronto FC embarks on a demanding stretch of five games in 16 days starting Saturday with the Philadelphia Union in East Hartford.
It's a battle of Eastern Conference heavyweights with two 8-2-4 teams squaring off at Toronto's pandemic home of Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
It's also the latest in a series of stiff tests for Toronto, which is coming off wins over Columbus and New York City FC -- who rank first and second in the league in defence, conceding 0.57 and 0.71 goals a game, respectively.
The Union are third in defence, giving up 0.79 goals a game. Toronto is tied for seventh (1.07 goals a game).
Should league-leading Columbus stumble at FC Dallas on the weekend, Saturday's winner could move atop the standings.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney is looking at the bigger picture, figuring out how to get the most out of his squad without running his players into the ground..
"This next five games is all hands on deck," he said Friday. "A big chunk of the battle is take as many points as possible, but also a big chunk of this is to get to the end of it with as many points and as healthy as possible."
With two of the next five games on turf, Vanney expects "a physical and mental grind."
"My expectation is everyone needs to be ready to go, everyone needs to be ready to contribute. And every one should step up."
That's not easy, given the Canadian teams are having to play away from home because of travel restrictions barring U.S. teams from heading north of the border.
Striker Jozy Altidore spoke of the challenges off and on the field.
"It's been definitely a difficult year, so it's a huge testament to the guys that we're still able to get results and still show on the field that we're focused and united," he said.
The Philadelphia matchup is followed by games against New England, Cincinnati, the Red Bulls and Atlanta. Vanney's team then has five days before the regular-season stretch run -- four games beginning Oct. 24 with a rematch in Philadelphia.
Captain Michael Bradley (knee) and Brazilian fullback Auro (ankle) are in Hartford with the team but are not quite ready to return to action.
Toronto is coming off an impressive 3-1 win against Columbus, rallying for three goals in the second half in arguably the club's finest 45 minutes of the season. The TFC travelling party chartered home after the game Sunday, returning to Hartford on Wednesday.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, is coming off a 3-0 victory over Inter Miami.
"A real good win for us," said Union coach Jim Curtin. "It sets us up nicely in the table nicely against now a Toronto team that again I think people sometimes forget -- you turn your head on them for a second and all of a sudden them and Seattle are right at the top of the league and two of the best teams in the league.
"They have a ton of talent. They're very well coached. Greg Vanney does a great job with them. They like to play soccer. They keep the ball on the ground, they pass the ball, they move for each other. They defend really well as a team also.
"When you think about them, it starts with (Toronto midfielder Alejandro) Pozuelo who for me, along with maybe (Seattle's) Jordan Morris, has been the MVP of the league. He's one of the most fun entertaining players to watch, plays with both feet, can get goals and assists."
As Columbus coach Caleb Porter did last week, Curtin talked up Toronto as a franchise.
"I can't stress enough the consistency that Toronto has in a league where parity's almost, I'd say, encouraged. They're always at the top. It's something we're striving for. I think we've improved each year. But they've been at the very top each of these years. So it will be a big test for us."
The Union have been acing recent tests.
Philadelphia is undefeated in five games (4-0-1), outscoring the opposition 12-2 along the way. It has not conceded a goal in 265 minutes.
Barring a 2-1 semifinal loss to eventual champion Portland at the MLS is Back Tournament in August, the Union have been beaten just once -- 1-0 to Columbus on Sept 2 -- since dropping its 2020 season opener 2-0 at FC Dallas on Feb. 29.
Philadelphia Union (8-2-4) vs. Toronto FC (8-2-4)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
FORM: Philadelphia is unbeaten in five games (4-0-1) while Toronto is undefeated in four (3-0-1).
IMPACT PLAYERS: Philadelphia forward Kacper Przybylko leads the league with four game-winning goals. Toronto's Alejandro Pozuelo, just named MLS player of the month, has three game-winners and leads the league with nine assists.
HARD TO BEAT: Union goalkeeper Andre Blake sports an 0.79 goals-against average (fourth-best in the league) with six shutouts and has not conceded a goal for 265 minutes.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press