TFC will need to navigate the gauntlet of seven league matches this month in order to become a true contender.Thirty-one days. Seven league games. One friendly.
That's what Toronto FC faces this month, one that will ultimately determine whether this Bloody Big Deal is worthy of the title.
July will be a gruelling month for Ryan Nelsen's Reds, with many of the matches coming against Eastern Conference rivals. Throw in an international friendly against Tottenham Hotspur — a condition of the Jermain Defoe sale — and there won't be a single month this year where more collective eyes will be focused on BMO Field.
And that's the upside — four of the seven MLS contests this moth will take place within the friendly confines of the soon-to-be-expanded stadium on the north shore of Lake Ontario. BMO Field has been very kind to TFC as of late, with Toronto currently on a five-game home unbeaten streak in all competitions.
Perhaps more importantly, TFC has won three league contests in a row at the 22,591-capacity ground, with the club's next three MLS matches set to take place there. It's a considerable home field advantage, one that Toronto needs to keep going if it wants to make up ground on the Sporting Kansas Citys and D.C. Uniteds of the world.
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"Being at home, we are tough at home," Nelsen said of TFC's upcoming stretch after his side's 1-1 draw at Chicago on Wednesday, the first game of TFC's marathon July schedule. "That is where we thrive. We still have two or three games in hand on most teams so there’s an opportunity for us to jump up the standings.”
Ah yes, the games in hand. A byproduct of a strange schedule that saw TFC only play six times in the first two months of the current campaign, the light fixture list has caused fans and media alike (yours truly included) to point to Toronto's points-per-game average as a better gauge of where the revamped club stands vis-a-vis other MLS outfits.
It's an easy thing to do, especially given the club's relatively good results so far. But after July, it'll be no more. The standings will simply be the standings, and Toronto will have either turned potential points into real points or it'll have been found out as a pretender.
The smart money is that this year's TFC is for real, not just as a playoff contender but also as a legitimate challenger for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. No team has taken the division by the scruff of its neck the way Seattle has in the West, and Toronto — currently riding a six-game unbeaten streak for the first time since 2008 — is as good a candidate as any.
Will it happen? No one can say for sure, but we'll have a much better idea when the calendar changes over to August.