Preseason 2020 MLS Balls

TORONTO – A touch of the normal has returned.

Last Monday Toronto FC returned to the BMO Training Ground for full training in anticipation of the MLS is Back Tournament which gets underway at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney Resort in Florida on July 8.

“Honestly it's been a breath of fresh air for everybody,” said Jonathan Osorio of resuming somewhat of the regular routine. “It’s what we’ve all been itching for this whole break.”

“[It’s] been tough, not only for us, but for everybody around the world,” he continued. “For us, we missed going into training, being able to be with the guys and play football in the normal way. And finally we got to do that this past week. It's been really nice. The spirits are up, we're excited, we've worked really hard and we're at a good spot right now.”

The reopening has been an evolution – from the Zoom workouts of the lockdown to individual and, gradually, small group sessions at the Downsview Park location. The work required was put in during the hiatus, but being able to get back together as a group after the shock of the shutdown is the next stage ahead of the tournament.

“Really awesome,” smiled Alex Bono over the phone. “You have off-seasons and little breaks, which are always well deserved and needed in the middle of a season, but you never experience a break that you don't expect.”

“And when you do, you really miss what you should be doing; what you planned on doing,” he continued. “The fact that we missed out on so much time, guys are really ready to get back, chomping at the bit just to get back on the field, be back with the guys passing the ball and just doing simple things that we take for granted during the normal season.”

“For us to be able to come back and do it together,” he added, “has been awesome.”

It’s the little things that Bono missed the most.

“Even though we can’t be in the same locker room, walking in, seeing guys’ faces in the morning, banter and talking, chatting back and forth.... They always say that's the part you miss when you retire,” he pondered. “None of us are retiring just yet, but that short amount of time that we were forced to be away from each other, we definitely missed it.”

Not that things are exactly the same.

Routines have changed, precautions taken. Where the training ground used to be a hive of activity from morning to night with players arriving before breakfast and academy teams on the pitch until sundown, now it’s different.

“You show up, they take your temperature and then Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we're getting tested, but it's quick,” detailed Bono. “They stagger our arrival times, so one group gets there and by the time the next group rolls in everyone's done with their testing and their temperature and they're getting ready for training.”

“Training happens and then you’re in your shower and out of there,” he added. “It sounds like a longer process than the normal day, but it's actually a lot quicker: you're in and out compared to a normal day where you'll have video, two meals, meetings and all that sort of stuff.”

All very comfortable, aside from the nasopharyngeal swabs thrice weekly.

As with the rest of society, some of the players have emerged from hibernation a little shaggier than others.

“There’s a few guys that haven’t got a haircut in a while,” chuckled Osorio. “Most guys got sick of it and started doing their own thing, dealing with it. I did that a few times.”

“All I know is that Liam Fraser has to cut his hair. He has to do it,” he urged. “He just needs to do it himself and be okay with whatever the result is.”

Most have.

“It used to be me,” admitted Bono. “Pretty much everyone on the team, a week-and-a-half ago, would say, ‘Bones is the one guy who needs a haircut.’ I've remedied that situation; I've fixed the issue and I am no longer that man.”

“I would say, Pat Mullins has got some real long hair right now. It's almost excessive,” he joked. “Liam Fraser has got some long hair going on, some facial hair.”

Do not be surprised if some headbands are needed come game time.

“Hopefully not,” anticipated Bono. “But you might see some.”

Though the exact schedule has yet to be revealed, Toronto is expected to head to Florida early next month for the World Cup-style competition featuring group stages and a proper knockout format, leading from Round of 16 to Quarterfinal and Semifinal into an August 11 Final.

The anticipation is building.

“We're all excited for the fact that we're going to play games,” said Osorio. “We haven't played games in a long time. That's a big thing. We just want to go and compete; we’re itching to compete.”

“The tournament itself is very unique and will be exciting for our fans. It will be a challenge: you're dealing with playing games at very different times – 9 am and then 8 pm and 10pm; you're dealing with the weather. All those things, plus it's going to be a lot of intense, meaningful games in a pretty short period of time,” he continued. “It's going to take the depths of a team to win that tournament.”

“We know what we're going into, we're prepared, and we want to win. We want to win because that's the culture that we have at our club – we want to win everything,” he added. “This is in front of us right now and we're going there to win.”

While everybody is in a different place dealing with the state of the world, there is one consensus.

“At the end of the day, guys are just looking forward to getting back to playing games; games that matter,” weighed Bono. “From an overall standpoint, we're competitors and there's not a guy in our locker room and not many guys around the league that would sit and tell you they're not looking forward to playing games.”

“And that's what it comes down,” he continued. “We're back to playing games, games that mean something. And the scary thing is that no one knows what will happen after this tournament. It depends on where the world is – that part is out of our hands – and because of that uncertainty we have this plan in place. We decided, as the [MLS] Players Association, that this is the right way to do it.”

With the results of the group stage matches factoring into the regular season standings, everyone is hopeful that after the tournament there is some way to resume action in the respective home markets. Until that day, however, the focus is on tackling what will be a unique experience.

Foremost there is the isolation required to ensure the safety of all involved, not that there is any way to fully prepare for that.

“You don’t; you can’t,” admitted Bono. “There's a lot of young guys who just want to play. They don't care about staying in hotels, they don't have families and kids, they just want to play.”

“I said to the young guys on our team, ‘This isn't preseason where you get home from training and you can go walk across the street and get a coffee or go down to the beach, or go shopping, or order a dinner if you don't like the hotel food for the night,’” he relayed. “‘You have to understand that this is a serious lockdown. The expectation is you won't leave the grounds, nothing from outside is coming in, and nothing from inside is going out, so take that into account,’ and the mood shifted.”

Players are used to a few days in a hotel on road trips during the regular season and longer stints in preseason, but this is not that.

“Preseason is a grind, but you can live,” said Bono. “Here a lot of guys are going to start to get cabin fever. It's not like you're even in an apartment, you're in a hotel room. And that's why the league [has] to make sure that there are amenities, just for the mental health of guys that are going to be down at the tournament.”

“They need to have some sort of relief, some sort of enjoyment, some sort of fun outside of the daily grind of playing soccer and then staying in your hotel room,” he urged. “Because a month-and-a-half like that isn’t good for anybody.”

Given the format, past tournament experience provides some insight into what it will be like, but even that is inadequate.

“It could be similar to a Gold Cup, minus the travel, which is actually a good thing,” considered Osorio. “But then you're in a hotel. It's not like if you have free time you can go out to a coffee shop or something. This is different.”

“But as a team we’ll find a way and we'll find a way together so that every guy is in the right mind frame as much as possible throughout the tournament,” he continued. “We'll be trying to help each other out. That's a big thing.”

The concept of ‘team’ will take on an even bigger meaning.

“There's going to be a lot of time on our hands,” Osorio added. “But maybe it's useful time that everybody is going to find a way to work with it.”

While the competition itself will progress with pace, there will still be a lot of time on the hands. Bono will be bringing his PlayStation and Call of Duty, but hopes there is more to do than while away the hours digitally.

“If I have to stay in my room for the majority of the day I will not be just sitting around doing absolutely nothing,” he mused. “I heard that the NBA has multiple golf courses and outdoor restaurants. I might bring [my golf clubs] with me if there's a golf course secured.”

“It has to be serious and it has to be business, but there also has to be a relief,” Bono continued. “I've talked to a lot of friends around the league and guys on our team, if we can get a golf course or some restaurants, then it’s, ‘we're all in the same boat here, we can hang out with each other and make the most of it.’ It eases the tension of the whole process.”

Then there is the wrinkle of the closed-door experience, one different from the likes seen in other soccer leagues around the world.

While preseason games regularly happen under such bare bone conditions, for Bono it will be entirely new playing meaningful games without fans.

“There won't be any fans; there won't be any atmosphere there. There’s not even a stadium, it’s more-or-less just a field,” he levelled. “You see these Bundesliga games, they’re playing in their home stadiums, it's not really going to be like that. It's a totally different thing.”

That will have an effect, at least at first.

“I think you’re going to see games that start slow, especially with 9 am kickoffs, late night kickoffs. It's going to be difficult for guys to really get into the flow of the game at times,” Bono anticipated. “Once games get going, the competitive nature will take over and you'll see some real quality soccer. They say that once the games get underway, you tune out that crowd noise and get in the zone. That’s obviously the hope. You can't expect that right from the first whistle teams are going to be at their best or they're going to be flying.”

Osorio has played some closed door games with the Canadian National Team.

“A few with Canada, for sure; some in preseason with TFC, but those are preseason. It's different without the fans; there's a different element to it, [something] is missing,” he explained. “Players that feed off that energy are going to have to adapt and find a way to push yourself and get yourself moving at the right intensity of the game.”

Be that as it may, when the ball gets rolling, the game remains the same.

“These games are going to be very intense,” promised Osorio. “The group stage games are worth points and then every game after that is meaningful in a single elimination.”

“Would we rather have fans? Of course,” said Osorio, looking forward to playing in front of the TFC faithful again one day. “But with the circumstances, that's not possible and we’re going to have to find ways to get ourselves ready.”