As one man exits the stage another enters.
The visit of Orlando City SC to BMO Field on Saturday will mark the final match of the 2023 MLS regular season.
The moniker ‘Decision Day’ carries an air of finality about it, but for Toronto FC it is a new beginning.
John Herdman will take charge of his first match as head coach for the club. Herdman is no stranger to BMO Field after his exploits with the Men’s and Women’s Canadian National Teams in Toronto.
“It'll be a surreal moment, walking into that stadium with a different team,” he said on Friday. “But the same passion will be there, the same commitment, drive, to push a performance out of this group of men for our fans. I’m going to have my family there supporting us. I'm excited.”
Herdman took over full time during the international break after spending an initial period observing. First team management has a different rhythm to the international game.
“I loved it. Up 5:30 am, getting in at 7:30/8 o'clock at night, just loving that intensity, I’ve missed that,” he reflected. “The environment is conducive for success here. There's a really good front office, there's a solid group of people, the team behind the team. They were provoked as well behind the scenes, and they've really risen up to do things a little bit differently and find that extra gear to support the players in this last match.”
“We brought all the staff out onto the field today to remind the players that we owe it to everyone, to the staff, to the fans, to our families, to give everything we can in this last game,” Herdman added. “That's the mission.”
“It's a privilege to be part of that last part of a great man's journey. I had to spend months, years even, finding ways to stop the USA when Michael Bradley was playing, that's how pivotal he was. I shared some of those tactics with him and we had a little bit of a laugh, but to be in this moment with him – for all the staff, for the players – this is a genuine legend that's going to leave the club,” Herdman shared. “Michael, what I've learned about him in two weeks, he’s an intense guy. He absolutely cares. He really does. He's ready to get into coaching now and if he's not 99.9999% committed to something, he's not in.”
“And that was all I asked of him, where will you be? And I asked him to give some time to reflect, give us some time to show him what it could look like next year, but he's clear,” he continued. “He's excited about the coaching and ready to take that journey.”
“I think he's mad,” Herdman added with a laugh. “I think you should take some time out and just maybe enjoy life before he takes the coaching job on because it's addictive, and it's a harmful addiction as well, unfortunately.”
The absence of Bradley’s leadership next season will leave a vacuum. It is time for a new captain to emerge.
“It's glass half full, glass half empty,” said Herdman. “That was the conversation I had with Michael, that he could have that ‘heroes return’ next season and be a big part of driving the cultural change, but at the same time, it leaves an opportunity now for a new leader to emerge.”
“Always in these environments when you've had such a strong character, people default to that leadership and if that leadership is injured or rocked, then there's instability around the direction in the locker room,” he elaborated. “I would love, and I said to Michael, ‘I would have loved to have shared a year with him, or two, as he helped us rebuild this club,’ but at the same time, I'm also excited to see the opportunity now for new men to lead and rise up into that role.”
No decision has been made yet on who will take up the armband next season.
“I want to see how they roll out this weekend,” urged Herdman. “There's a lot riding on this game: for the players, for me, for the staff, there's a lot riding on it. We've had 10 days. I don’t think you stitch all the scars together in 10 days, there's no doubt there's a mental process, a team connection building process, that's got to go on here and that will take a two/three month process, but there's something I'm looking for in these men that they have to show this weekend.”
“And if they aren't able to show that this weekend, then they're sending a very clear message to the fans, to the city, to Toronto FC, and to the coaching staff about their motivation, their purpose and what their commitment is,” he spelled out. “This is a cup final for us. This is an absolute cup final.”
Standing opposite will be Orlando City.
Óscar Pareja’s side enter the final round of the MLS season with second place in the Eastern Conference and a playoff spot already secured.
Wins in their last three matches, unbeaten in four, Orlando will be looking to carry that momentum into the postseason.
“Tough match. They have the best away record in the league, so we know that they can score away from home. They seem to take that home mentality away,” noted Herdman – Orlando have eight wins, four losses, and four draws on their travels. “They’re a high pressing team, very relentless with their defensive transition, they'll hunt you down. A large South American influence in the team, so there's a clear identity in their style of play and they want to come inside, attack inside. You have players like [Mauricio] Pereyra who can change the game in the blink of an eye.”
Pereyra’s 12 assists lead the way for Orlando, while Facundo Torres has 14 goals as top scorer.
“As I've said to my group, defensively it's really important to show a new level of resilience against that type of team, but also a tactical acumen to deny them key areas that they've taken against every team in MLS on the road,” highlighted Herdman. “We’re ready for that South American style. Training it and then experiencing it when there's eight of those players together in rhythm, very difficult.”
“So we're going to have those adverse moments, those moments are coming that you've been suffering, and we can choose to respond in a different way: that's what I'm looking for more than anything,” he anticipated. “When it gets tough and Orlando bring that intensity or they have a moment where they score or they have a moment where they've got good momentum, will we respond the way that they've said they'll respond as a group, the way they're going to commit to respond? That's what I'm most interested in.”