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Despite points gap, Nashville expects tough challenge in its first visit to Toronto

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TORONTO — With 26 points, Nashville SC has exactly double the number Toronto FC has from the same number of games (15).

But the second-year team is expecting a stiff challenge when the two clubs meet Sunday at BMO Field.

"There's no doubt about it. This is a talented group as any in MLS … They've got quality in all areas of the field," said Nashville coach Gary Smith.

Toronto (3-8-4) is finally starting to show it, unbeaten in four games (2-0-2) under interim coach Javier Perez.

Nashville (6-1-8) is also on a run, unbeaten in seven games (4-0-3) — a streak that began June 23 with a 3-2 win over Toronto thanks to Luke Haakenson goals in the 83rd and 92nd minute.

"I expect we'll see a very different group to the one that we met not so long ago down here," said Smith.

"They're on a decent run … I'm sure that that talented group is starting to find their way again," he added. "And it's no shock that they've found themselves in this run as they return back home. I can only imagine what it must have been like for all of those Canadian teams to be away from home as long as they have been."

Sunday's match is Toronto's third at BMO Field since coming back north from its temporary pandemic base in Orlando, Fla.

Veteran TFC defender Omar Gonzalez says the team is just happy to be home. Toronto played 31 straight games on the road following its last game at BMO Field on Sept. 1, 2020.

"As everyone knows, Orlando was pretty bad," he said. "Coming home to Toronto, sleeping in our beds, being in our homes has just been incredible for the morale, for our spirits. And yes, things are positive around here. It feels vastly different than it was just a month ago. Everyone is livelier, everyone seems to be just happier.

"And in my experience when you're happy, you perform."

But he says the team's comeback has only just started.

"We're not satisfied with where we are and we want to keep pushing."

The Toronto visit kicks off a three-game, one-week Nashville road trip that includes stops at New England and Inter Miami.

"It's going to be a difficult trip, a difficult week," said Smith. "And it starts off with a very talented and difficult group that we play against."

While Nashville has never played in Toronto, Smith has fond memories of BMO Field. He coached the Colorado Rapids to the MLS Cup over FC Dallas there in 2010 and still has the match ball from the final.

His big hope is his club gets to escape the extreme heat and humidity of Nashville, Tenn. in coming north.

Toronto forward Ifunanyachi Achara and Brazilian fullback Auro are listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Achara has not played since tearing the torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee in June 2020. But he is back in full training, with a return not far away.

Auro is dealing with a lower body injury.

Toronto's Gold Cup contingent — Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea (Canada), Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) and Eriq Zavaleta — is back in the fold. Forward Ayo Akinola is gone for the season after suffering an ACL injury at the tournament with Canada.

Nashville is missing reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, who suffered a hamstring injury at the Gold Cup. Veteran midfielder Anibal Godoy, who represented Panama at the CONCACAF championship, is a "last-minute decision," coming off a hamstring injury.

Defender Jack Maher and former TFC fullback Daniel Lovitz are healthy again and available. Fullback Alistair Johnston is back from Gold Cup duty with Canada.

A stingy defence has been a Nashville trademark since entering MLS. Only Seattle, which tops the Western Conference, has conceded fewer goals per game (0.75) than Nashville (0.93).

Toronto is trying to solidify its defence but still ranks last in the league, giving up 2.13 goals a game.

Nashville has upped its offence this year, ranking seventh at 1.60 goals a game. And that attack is likely to improve with former Ivory Coast youth international Ake Loba finding his feet after joining the club on July 7 from Mexico's Monterrey.

"He's looked absolutely stunning in training," Smith said of the 23-year-old designated player.

Forward C.J. Sapong and German midfielder Hany Mukhtar have been leading the Nashville offence.

Sapong, an 11-year MLS veteran, scored two goals and helped set up the other in last week's 3-0 victory over FC Cincinnati. Sapong has five goals and three assists this season. Mukhtar, another of Nashville's designated players, has seven goals and four assists.

Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis, meanwhile, leads the league with seven clean sheets.

"A very very strong side," Perez said.


NASHVILLE SC (6-1-8) AT TORONTO FC (3-8-4)

Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET at BMO Field

ON A ROLL: Nashville has 24 goals and 25 assists this season, tying its 2020 high in both categories in eight fewer matches.

ON TARGET: Nashville ranks second in the league in shots on goal with 92, trailing NYCFC (102). TFC's total is 51.

HISTORY: Toronto is 0-2-0 all time against Nashville, which ousted it from last year's playoffs with a 1-0 victory after extra time.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press