Toronto FC

Reds gear up for Canadian Championship action against Saint-Laurent: "We will be agressive"


The quest to lift the Voyageurs Cup continues on Wednesday night.

Toronto FC hits the road for the opening leg of their Canadian Championship quarterfinal against League1 Quebec side CS Saint-Laurent at Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard in Montréal.

At the start of a gruelling stretch of matches this month John Herdman will have to manage his players' minutes throughout this spell. There will be some rotation, but the approach will remain the same.

“We're treating this like a typical midweek match,” stressed the TFC coach. “I'll travel with the strongest squad that I have available – as strong a squad as I can take, I’ll take.”

“There might be the odd TFC II call-up to bolster the ranks, but there's only an 18-man roster. We've got NYCFC on Saturday and we are also carrying some fatigue of a busy week last week, [but] you may see [Federico] Bernardeschi in this game,” Herdman considered. “It's a quarterfinal, these are big matches.”

A 2-0 lead early in the second half against FC Dallas on Saturday allowed Toronto to lessen the load.

“It was won early and we tactically readjusted in that second half, just to take the sting and the heat out of the running for the players,” said Herdman. “Similar to tournaments, you just have to manage the games, try and think about the next game around the 60-minute mark.”

“We started to do that,” he continued. “We were able to put some more gas in the tank of key players. That gives us a chance to start some that may have been previously rested, but also gives us a chance to bring some key players into the match if the result isn't in the direction we would hope.”

Toronto will be going into this one, against semi-professional opponents, as the Goliath.

“It can be tough,” levelled Luka Gavran. “Underestimating the opposition is never what you want to do, but with our mindset and the squad we have, I don't think that's really something we think about or do.”

“We're always going to be ready for any competition or any game,” he continued.

“Whatever team we play, we're going to be ready and give full force, full steam ahead.”

Saint-Laurent advanced past Canadian Premier League side HFX Wanderers FC in the preliminary round via a 5-3 shootout following a 2-2 draw in Halifax.

Halifax took the lead in the first half through a Dan Nimick penalty kick, only for Mamadou Kane to convert his own attempt minutes later. Loïc Kwemi put the visitors ahead in the second half and the home side needed a late Ryan Telfer goal to force the decision to penalties.

“I was really impressed,” said Herdman of Saint-Laurent’s performance. “They were well-organized, which you would expect from Quebec, there's a good tactical identity there. Their direct play over the press into some talented forwards caused Halifax some problems – the build up to that penalty was exactly that, the individual qualities of a couple of players combining together. That comes from tactical discipline, players being on the right blade of grass and anticipating before Halifax were able to.”

“Long story short, this is a team that will cause problems and from what I can see the pitch is 64 metres,” he continued. “We've done that before, where we've had a qualitative disadvantage playing for Canada, and it's difficult for opponents.”

“This is going to be a tricky one,” Herdman added. “But Gavran too was watching, with one eye on the Toronto Maple Leafs playoffs action.

“I caught the second half and the PKs,” recounted the goalkeeper. “They're a team that's not afraid to express themselves. They've got some speedy guys in transition and set-pieces are always an opportunity for people to get goals and big chances.”

“We have to be switched on: whether it's set-pieces, in the counter, in possession in our half; whether it's different phases of the game where they're having a bit more of a ball than us,” Gavran continued. “It's always a tough task playing against a lower rank opponent, but we have to keep a mindset of it's just another game that we need to be fully prepared for and don’t hold back.”

Establishing a measure of control is important in games like these. Toronto were able to do that against Simcoe County Rovers FC in the last round, scoring early took the sting out of Rovers early chances.

Halifax were less so, Saint-Laurent were allowed to play their game, growing as the match progressed.

“Saint-Laurent denied a level of control – they were able to skip lines very quickly, go front-to-back quickly, find the underneath players and then getting it into your talented forward line. The tactics for that game was spot on,” observed Herdman of coach Nicolas Razzaghi’s approach. “Halifax had some pitch control, in terms of their structure, but they were exposed in a way that I think Saint-Laurent will try to expose us.”

“We've seen Simcoe with some good opportunities in transition, with direct play to find players in that second phase to spring quickly. We'll have to be mindful of that,” he cautioned. “We won't be as open as you’ve seen us against Simcoe. At home, our intention for that game was to really push a ruthlessness, but when you're away from home, against any opponent, you have to manage the game.”

“We will be aggressive – that's part of our DNA,”

Herdman added. “But we'll certainly ensure that we get our numbers right so that we aren't put in as many tricky situations.”

That smaller pitch may be a factor.

“We may need to be a little bit more direct and be ready to play those second phase games as well,” considered the TFC coach. “Just be ready to win ugly; just find a way to win.”

“I haven't put pressure on my team this game on score-lines or targets,” he added. “When you're playing away from home, against a good opponent that’ll be tactically organized, with a very good crowd behind them, you've just got to be disciplined and bring your quality out the best way you can.”

Cup football just hits different.

“The only tournaments I've played recently, in college, we made the NCAA Tournament a couple of times,” recalled Gavran of his cup experience. “You get that kind of feeling [there] and a lot of times we were underdogs going to a tournament, so this is a bit of a different feeling – everyone's eyes on you, you should take care of business here.”

“But different teams, how they approach different knockout rounds and how people play, it gets exciting,” he continued. “I remember days in the NCAA when we would go up to ACC schools and they have a huge crowd. I remember one game we bunkered and had a tactical approach where it worked out and we ended up going through, so that feeling of one match, going through to the next round.”

“Bearing down and getting through each round is tough, especially when you have a busy May coming up. Wednesday is not going to be easy,” Gavran reminded. “We have to be prepared and, hopefully, give ourselves a good advantage coming home.”

When the Canadian Championship began way back in 2008 it was just the three professional teams: Toronto, CF Montréal (then the Impact), and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Over the years it has grown – 14 teams took part this season – and it will only get bigger as League1 expands to Alberta, the Maritimes, and the Prairies.

Days like these, opportunities for young players to square up against the highest levels of the game in the country, are “massive” according to Herdman.

“Having an infrastructure in League1 around the country creates a new level of professionalism – it feels like there's another layer to the scaffolding,” said the former Canadian National Team coach. “Talent development is multidimensional. There isn't one path to the top.”

“No matter how much we want to invest in academies,” Herdman continued. “The late bloomers, immigrants that are arriving in the country and can't access opportunities, these layers and levels in the talent framework give genuine opportunity.”

“Watching the Saint-Laurent game, [Mamadou Kane], the young winger, was contributing to a lot of the good work. There's a player that may be able to pop in this game and create a name for himself. The centre-forward, [Loïc Kwemi] also looked really effective,” he highlighted. “Maybe the CPL clubs or maybe there's an MLS club that finds what they've seen interesting.”

“I hope it's not against us, but at the same time, that's what these cup games are for: they’re for players that have that potential to come in, put their hand up,” he anticipated. “There will be two or three in this match that people will be talking about. They are a good team and against better opposition some of those players will rise up.”

Herdman knows of what he speaks.

One of the players he brought into the Men’s National Team, Ismaël Koné, now with Watford FC in England, came up through CS Saint-Laurent before joining Montréal. He trained with the club ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to keep his fitness levels high.

“That's one thing I learned about Koné,” pinpointed Herdman. “When he came into our environment, there's probably three, maybe four players in my time with Canada where when they came in, the first training session, you can see that their level reached the ceiling at that time, which was [Alphonso] Davies and [Jonathan] David. I'm anticipating some of that from Saint-Laurent. I’ve been impressed.”

Gavran too was thinking about the big picture in the lead up to the match.

“When we were younger, soccer in Canada wasn't where it is today,” he said. “To see it finally grow – the players on Saint-Laurent, this is a huge opportunity for them to showcase themselves – it's nice to see.”

“Like in English football, when big clubs come down in the early rounds of the FA Cup. You get to see big name players and professional clubs come into town and play. Watching the Halifax game and to see Saint-Laurent go through is like, ‘Wow, this is going to be huge for soccer in Canada,’” Gavran closed. “Us going down there, I'm sure there's going to be tons of people excited to watch us play and, hopefully, we can give them a great game.”