The scene shifts to California for the final phase of preseason.

Toronto FC arrived in Santa Barbara, California on Thursday evening and will play the first of three matches leading into the start of the season against the Columbus Crew on Saturday afternoon.

The side will then play Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, February 14 and LAFC on Saturday, February 17.

“The three matches bring a high level of tactical cohesion, introducing different models of play,” said head coach John Herdman on Friday afternoon.

“We’re really doubling down on principles.”

“The accent has gone from a heavy fitness-focus to a stronger tactical-focus where the fitness is delivered through our style of play, whether it’s maintaining the pressing intensity or the movement off the ball,” he continued. “We’ve got some big demands on the players there that push that level of fitness. Across the three games we'll be implementing different elements of our playing model and doubling down on our tactical identity across different areas.”

A match against the defending MLS Cup champions, and other teams of their ilk, is exactly what Herdman and company wanted from their preseason experience. 

LAFC were the defeated finalists in 2023 and Real Salt Lake finished fifth in the Western Conference before bring knocked out in Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs by the Houston Dynamo via a shootout in the second of their three-game series.

“Columbus is a championship team,” Herdman underlined. “We said we wanted to take the hard games through the preseason to really get a measuring stick early on and set the tone for the players. That's a big part of it tomorrow. We'll see how close we can compete to what would be the most dominant team in MLS last year.”

The match, much like the one against Nashville, will be more of a training exercise than a proper match. 120 minutes have been agreed upon by the teams, split into two 60-minute matches of 30-minute halves.

“We’re still on the 120 minutes,” confirmed Herdman. “That was a request from Columbus. We’re happy to support that, continue the assessment of players. Players aren’t ready yet to ramp to that 90 minutes.” 

And just getting their footing in California after a week spent training in the bubble in Toronto and a long flight, TFC will take some precautions in this first outing.

“We just arrived last night so the players are adapting,” explained the coach. “There’s a bit of fatigue. We had a match-day minus-one session. We may hold a couple of players out tomorrow, nothing serious, just let them impact the next game given we’ve got three games in a seven day period of time.”

“We're managing coming off the turf in Toronto and then the shift across time zones,” Herdman continued, specifically referencing Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. “We’re in that precautionary stage. Tomorrow I'll be using as much as I can for more assessment of players.”

“For the guys I know about,” he added. “I can prioritize their minutes when we know they're fully recovered and ready to go.”

Herdman confirmed there are some new faces in the group, but kept those cards close to his chest.

“We have trialists in at the moment,” he said. “They will get opportunity in the game, but we’ll try to maintain some confidentiality to give them their best chance to stay focused on the task at hand.”

“They’re younger players,” he hinted. “That fill in some areas that I’m interested in trying to build strength in.”

Aside from the additions of Deybi Flores and MLS SuperDraft first-overall pick Tyrese Spicer, Toronto has been quiet in terms of ins and outs. 

Herdman expects that to change as the opening match away to FC Cincinnati on February 25 draws nearer.

“It's two things at play here,” he explained.

“The first thing is getting the right people – making sure they are the absolute right fit and not doing things out of desperation – and then the movement of other players.”

It has always been clear that additions will require subtraction in TFC’s roster calculus.

“What I can say is I’m expecting some signings in the next two weeks,” Herdman said. “Prior to that LAFC game will be the mission of the front office to make sure that you get a game or two under the belt of any new signings.”

“The club are working hard, speaking to some key players,” he closed. “Some are closer than others to being across the line, but what I'm learning is you can get close and the next minute it's gone.”