TORONTO – Quick on the heels of the midweek announcement that MLS would return next month, Toronto FC learned just who their opponents would be on Thursday.
The MLS is Back Tournament kicks off on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida. TFC were drawn into Group C alongside D.C. United, the Montreal Impact, and the New England Revolution.
“It's a tough group,” said Greg Vanney on a conference call shortly after the draw. “There are some things that I like about it, one of those being that three of our four teams are coming from the north, so we'll have to deal with the heat and humidity. I don't think any of the three of us will be overly used to it. That's good versus having a team from the south, we’ll all be adapting to that together.”
Of the three Eastern Conference opponents, a match against Canadian rivals, Montreal, is particularly mouthwatering.
“Montreal makes for an exciting game, something for the fans to be excited about as well,” anticipated Vanney. “I know our guys will be anxious and excited to play Montreal.”
But with New England resurgent under Bruce Arena and Ben Olsen’s D.C. always difficult to play against – humbling experience at BMO Field in last October’s MLS Cup Playoffs fresh in the mind – each of the three group stage matches will prove a challenge.
“I don't know that there was going to be any easy groups, they all look tough,” added Vanney. “We're all just trying to get back into it and get ourselves prepared as quickly as possible, but we're all excited to be back on the field and competing soon.”
With the 25th season of MLS action put on hold after just two rounds of play, this World Cup-style reintroduction where all 26 teams split into six groups with all matches held in one location was both practical and potentially very engaging.
“There's a level of excitement to an event that has a tournament style,” foresaw the TFC coach. “It's a necessary step to get us back into competition sooner rather than later. There's just really no clear avenue to competition if we were all playing in all these different markets. This gives us a chance to be in somewhat of a bubble and take a lot of consideration to testing and to safety; make the environment as safe as possible.”
“And it gets us back on the field, which is great for the players, great for the staff, also for the fans to be able to re-engage in the sport,” Vanney continued. “There was no perfect solution. This was the best of what was possible. In a league that has grown so much over the last 25 years it's been hard to sit idle here for the last few months waiting to figure out what's next.”
Adding an extra facet to the group stage is that the three matches will count towards the standings when a regular season resumes.
“There was a lot of discussion around the league as to what this return to play was going to look like,” began Vanney. “What was important for all of us was the integrity of the game – obviously safety was at the top of the list, but the integrity of the game was next.”
“Second was that the games were purposeful and meaningful for players, for fans, for everybody,” he continued. “That would drive that emotion that fans get when they watch games during the season and most notably in the playoffs. So a situation where the group games matter for [progression to] the knockout round, but also in terms of points towards the regular season.”
“There’s not much that you can give away here. You’ve got to go out and compete in every game and every game has value,” he reminded. “They’ve done a nice job of finding that balance there.”
Coming up with a way back was a difficult, months long process that involved much conversation and consultation. As a result, MLS is back starting July 8.
“They've done a nice job of taking a very difficult situation and trying to make the best out of it,” lauded Vanney. “The players are going to go down there eager to compete.”
For now, however, the games will be played behind closed doors without fans in attendance. The whole world is learning to adjust to this new quirk.
“At first not having some of that atmosphere will play a little bit on the games,” anticipated Vanney. “What's going to be hard for players is as games get challenging and the moments get tough sometimes you rely on the fans or the atmosphere to help you push through.”
“The players are going to have to dig deep and push each other. Once you get really locked in and focused on the task at hand and what's happening on the field, some of that gets blocked out a little bit, but it'll be different for sure,” he continued. “And to not have a crowd behind us, specifically the Montreal game, will be interesting. There will still be a competitive spirit and a rivalry on the field, both sides will feel that, but not having our fans, whether it be here or in Montreal, actually behind us will be different.”
In the coming weeks, with a date set on the horizon, ongoing preparations now have a more specific focus compared to the tentative waiting game everyone has been playing the past months. And the prize at the end, a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, is tangible.
“We want to make sure that the players are ready,” said Vanney. “Our guys have been really working hard, we're going to get into full training, hopefully, on Monday, and really start competing.”
“Guys have worked really hard all through the pandemic, whether it be on Zoom calls or when we've gotten into individual training and small group training. Physically we're in a pretty good place,” he continued. “We want to make sure that we get ourselves back into this smart, but the group stage points are very important. If we can position ourselves to carry on and pick up a few more games, play for a championship, win the [Champions League] position.”
The schedule, in terms of who plays who when, will be announced in due time. For now, the first game is something to look forward to.
TFC’s whole roster will be available and Vanney confirmed that teams will be allowed five substitutions and have extended game day rosters of 23 participants, allowing some flexibility.
The strategizing has begun; with an eye to readying for what lies beyond.
“All the games are important, but the first three are initially. If we can position ourselves in a good way to get to the next [round] then we go into championship mode and switch our mindset to ‘we’re really trying to play for a title,’” aimed the coach. “The first three games try to earn those points, but also understanding that we're still building our way into what, hopefully, will be a longer season.”