It’s good to be home.
Throughout the pandemic Toronto FC has had to be flexible.
In 2020, shortly after playing the home opener against NYCFC, the action paused. When play resumed the team was largely relocated to the US – first Florida for the MLS is Back Tournament – and then East Hartford, Connecticut for the remainder of the season, aside from a handful of matches in empty stadiums against their Canadian cousins Vancouver Whitecaps FC and CF Montreal in between.
In 2021 the team was based in Orlando, Florida, playing out of Orlando City SC’s stadium for the first several months of the campaign before coming back home to restricted crowds.
It was a difficult existence.
Saturday will be the first home game that will feel something like that raucous 1-0 win over NYCFC where then-rookie Ifunanyachi Achara scored the late game-winner.
It feels a lifetime ago. In a different world. It’s been a long time. Too long.
There is a lightness in the group as they anticipate the visit of the New York Red Bulls to BMO Field on Saturday afternoon.
“Definitely,” replied Bob Bradley from BMO Field on Wednesday, asked if he sensed anticipation in the mood of the group. “When you consider everything the players have been through the last two years.”
“Just the feeling when preseason was over and they were home and then knowing that the home opener is coming up,” he continued. “All of them. You can just tell the way they come in every day, really excited. They all love Toronto and they know what it's like to play games in front of our fans and how important that is, so fantastic for us to be ready now to get that chance.”
Chris Mavinga was at a loss for words. A deep exhale of breath mid-statement said it all.
“It feels amazing to be back here to play in front of our fans. We’re really excited to be on the field on Saturday. For me, it’s like a dream to here and to play in Toronto,” he said with relief. “I can’t explain my feelings right now, but this is a moment that we want.”
Some players know what a loud BMO Field sounds like. Time has not dimmed those memories.
“It was my first year, so it was one of the coolest years of my life,” said Jacob Shaffelburg. “Just the summer nights at BMO with a packed crowd.”
“But that was back in 2019, so it’s certainly been a little bit,” he added. “I'm excited to see all the fans out and just to be able to play in front of them again will be amazing.”
Others have yet to sample it.
“Coming back last year we didn't really have any fans. Going into the season, staying away from home and stuff like that,” said Jayden Nelson. “So it's great to come back, seeing everyone supporting us. We're just buzzing to get back on the pitch.”
“I was waiting to play in front of my hometown,” he relished. “It's something I'm really excited for and I can't wait.”
A lot of them will have loved ones in attendance for a special afternoon, whether from near.
“Of course, of course,” smiled Nelson, a Bramptonian. “Everyone is coming.”
“My parents are coming up, so it'll be their first home opener in MLS,” said Shaffelburg, a Nova Scotia-native. “I’ll be super excited to have them here and hopefully we can get a good result for them.”
“It would have been Montreal last year, at the home game,” he replied, asked when last they saw him play live. “They came up then; I'm excited to have them here. It’ll be good.”
Toronto is home. It’s good to be back.
“Yeah, we love it,” said the coach, who has settled in since joining the club in November. “We appreciate what Toronto is all about as a city.”
“The different experiences that we've had in life. Our appreciation of cities that have diversity, cities where there's a real embracing of multiculturalism, cities that have a character and soul about them,” explained Bradley, who has sampled the world in a lifetime spent in the game. “We appreciate that part of it.
“Then, of course, when you're close to family. Having been here enough, we found a place quickly. We're pretty good at fast moves; we've done it a few times – my wife's the MVP, so that part's been great,” he continued. “On the family end, I've gone with Michael, taken both kids to school in the morning. I've had a chance to see Luca play a lot of football, which I had seen through video, but not through my own eyes, so that part is really good.”
“And just like I mentioned with players, if you play or coach at a club that spends most of preseason away, then it's a really good feeling when preseason is over and now life begins again,” Bradley added. “When you come back after preseason in some cities like Toronto, cold weather cities, you've got to deal with some weeks, maybe even months, of conditions that aren't perfect, so there's a little bit of that that's a challenge, but nonetheless, you can just see for everyone the excitement to be home.”