Toronto FC

Phase Three milestone: How Toronto FC is transforming from within


Ten games in the journey is well underway.

In a campaign as long as an MLS regular season, with all its twists and turns, with other competitions popping up in between, it only makes sense to break it down into digestible bits.

The opening portion came to an end on Saturday night with Toronto FC’s dramatic 2-1 win away to Orlando City SC where two late goals put the club into the top four places in the Eastern Conference standings.

One could see what it meant to the club in the celebrations after the final whistle.

“We made certain objectives that we wanted to reach as a group,” explained Sean Johnson post-match. “It was important for us to maintain and stay on target of where we wanted to be at this point in the season.”

“This match was a big factor in that entire objective,” he continued. “For us, it's putting everything into the performance to make sure we stay on target and ultimately you saw the emotion of a group that is a close group, that has developed a brotherhood since day one, that we’ve come together and all the additions have joined the family. You're seeing that hard work as a unit paying off.”

“Everybody, the collective – everybody that started the game, the guys that came on the pitch, the guys that didn't come on the pitch – the energy was all directed to winning the game tonight. We needed every ounce of that energy,” Johnson pinpointed. “It was a beautiful thing to see and I was really happy for the group.”

Goals, saves, passes, runs, the infinite other decisions that occur over the 90-plus minutes of a match, multiplied by every game over the course of the season. Undergirding it all is the mentality with which a group approaches every day.

That is what a team can rely on when the going gets tough, when fortune has smiled on another, especially away from home and trailing in the final three minutes of regulation time.

Phase One, preseason in Florida, was about laying the physical foundation for the travails ahead. Phase Two, in California, put the tactical blueprint in place. Phase Three, this opening ten matches, was about focusing that mentality, testing it, and positioning the side for the rest of the voyage.

It was a demonstration of how far the team has come in these short four months to pull off their first come-from-behind victory since 2022 and the first on the road since 2017.

“It's work-in-progress – that's all I can say,” replied John Herdman, asked about the mentality his team displayed in Orlando. “It's a process that we’re all working on.”

“There’s a collective group behind the scenes, from Robyn Gayle to the assistant coaches to the general manager, everyone is in about having the right people here with the right mentality. When things got tough for us, we didn't split,” he continued.

“We maintained our principles of where we are heading and challenged the players.”

“Even coming out of the Simcoe County Rovers FC\] game, that was a tough conversation the next day,” Herdman explained, referencing [the 5-0 victory midweek in the Canadian Championship where the group had set a target of seven goals, one better than the club’s all-time record, against their League1 Ontario opposition. “To get so close to breaking a record and not having the mentality to see it through... it was disappointing. I couldn't celebrate that with them.”

“If we are going to get this club back to where it belongs it's going to change and it's got to be consistent. I've got to keep having tough conversations with the leadership group and they’ve got to keep having them with us as well, to make sure we keep raising the standards,” he laid out. “It's an ongoing process, but what I have learned in the last ten games is it's a club-wide process. People are collectively driving the environment here, the standards, what we want from TFC II to the first team and the people around the club.”

That ethos begins with Herdman, but the choir needs to be receptive to the preaching.

“Since John has come into the organization he's been very clear about what he wants to achieve and that's definitely spread throughout the team,” confirmed Johnson.

“We knew we were not going to be able to achieve anything without doing it together.”

“We have been focused on building a culture – we, the collective, the leaders within this team, from top to bottom – take that initiative from John,” he continued. “The staff, the veteran players, the new players that come in, everybody understands what it takes to achieve something.”

“And to be a part of something special doesn't happen often,” reflected the veteran goalkeeper. “Coming off a year like last year, it was important to really nail the things we needed to fix, what was going to take us to that next level, and the culture is the bottom of it.”

“We talk about doing more than what's necessary for self. Being able to do selfless things for other people means giving every ounce of energy you have on the pitch, off the pitch, the days leading up to the game, match day, the days after a game. Everything matters,” he added. “This group has come a long way.”

The road ahead will not be easy.

Phase Four begins on Saturday with the visit of FC Dallas to BMO Field. May will see a flurry of matches as the pace of the league ramps up and the quest for the Voyageurs Cup continues, all leading into the kickoff of the 2024 Leagues Cup in the middle of July. Beyond lies that final push to the MLS Cup Playoffs and glory.

It’s important to celebrate the successes along the way.

“You have to,” levelled Herdman. “We were so deliberate around these ten games, the points-per-game, the targets, and you build trust when you commit to what you say you're going to do.”

“Tonight was so important because that trust erodes – it erodes with the fans, it erodes as an individual,” he continued.

“You have to be able to trust yourself. You have to be able to set targets and deliver.”

“They did it and they have to celebrate that,” the coach added. “I know we’re ten games in and there will be a group of people saying, “Oh my God, these people need to settle down’ and all the rest of it, but for me Phase Three was ten matches and we landed where [the players] said they wanted to be. I'm proud of them.”

“And the good news is we've got to go again,” he smiled. “We've got another phase coming and this phase is the chaos of the double weeks. Our squad is going to get tested. I'm hoping we can get Lo [Lorenzo Insigne] back and Shane [O’Neill] and Richie [Laryea] to help us out, but the fun has only just started.”

“The adversity is really going to come in this next phase now,” Herdman closed. “The win tonight has give us a good foundation to build on.”