Medical testing over, relocation to Florida done, preseason has begun in earnest for Toronto FC.
The team arrived back at the BMO Training Ground on Saturday for physical evaluations, spoke to the media on Monday, and flew south on Tuesday to begin their 2024 campaign.
“Everyone's here,” confirmed head coach John Herdman on Monday. “We just finished the fitness testing this morning and the players have really put a shift in over the off-season.”
“It's been quite a morning to see how they've shaved time off the times that were mandatory for our preseason entry,” he continued. “I'd spoken to the group prior to Christmas and made [the consequences] clear if the standards weren't met, but everyone's done it. They've more than done it.”
Toronto will be in Palm Beach, Florida for the first phase of preseason through February 2. They will then return home briefly before moving on to Santa Barbara, California on February 8 as the opening day of the season begins to come into view.
The opening portion will be primarily about getting ready for the rigours of the long campaign ahead.
“The first phase is the physical foundation,” outlined Herdman. “It's a real physical focus, but [also] to develop some of those cultural elements through the adversity they've got to face and pushing each other.”
“Some of the cultural work will happen, the leadership group have started their work in setting the goals for the season, they've started to set some of their non-negotiable frameworks that are going to be important, but then the next piece is really getting down to purpose – why we're here – and that happens when you’re suffering,” he continued. “There will be a lot of work in that space. Robyn Gayle will be busy, I'll be busy behind the scenes, trying to really get to the bottom of the motivation of these men and to bring some clarity. And then phase two as we move into Santa Barbara is about the tactical cohesion.”
“As much as we can, the players want to feel pain through this period of time, they want to suffer,” Herdman added. “So our physical team have been given permission to do that.”
TFC has announced four preseason matches, one during the first phase and three in the second – February 2 vs. Nashville SC, February 10 vs. Columbus Crew, February 14 vs. Real Salt Lake, and February 17 vs. LAFC – leading up to the opening day of the 2024 MLS season on February 25 when Toronto faces defending Supporters’ Shield winner FC Cincinnati at TQL Stadium.
With limited player movement in the off-season to date, Herdman called the roster “a work in progress”.
“We'll take 28 to the preseason, try to keep that number intimate because we've got a lot of work to do,” he continued. “I didn't want to be bringing 30/40 players into preseason. We're not a championship team where we're exploring at the fringes, we really are resetting and starting again and I feel like that needs to be an intimate group.”
“The roster build is ongoing,” Herdman added.
“It's been a slow process, but hopefully things will start heating up in the next two weeks.”
He pointed to two elements behind the pace of the process: the salary cap and an added emphasis on making the right moves.
“The way our roster is constructed at the moment there's got to be some level of movement before we can seriously bring players in,” Herdman said. “There’s cap realities where we really are trying to hit the bullseye.”
“The level of scrutiny that's gone into every single player that's now arriving in the front office has gone up,” he added. “We’re working hard to make sure, we made a commitment, it's got to be the right people coming to this club.”
While that process continues, there is one position where Toronto has more than enough bodies: centre-forward.
There are seven candidates in camp to feature between Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi in the TFC attack. Deandre Kerr, Adama Diomande, Prince Owusu, Ayo Akinola, Jordan Perruzza, Hugo Mbongue, and 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick Charlie Sharp will all be competing for the starting role on February 25
“The job is open,” replied Herdman, asked if he had a candidate pencilled in.
“Deandre has set some real standards with the work he's done behind the scenes. A very impressive preseason shift from that young man, so he’s set some intent there.”
Kerr, whose five goals tied Bernardeschi for the team lead in 2023, saw the most minutes last season, but Diomande’s availability was limited by injury while Owusu only arrived in August. Both Akinola and Perruzza have returned from loan spells, at the San Jose Earthquakes and HFX Wanderers FC, respectively, and Mbongue saw a lot time last year with TFC II in MLS NEXT Pro.
“I'll leave it open for a period of time,” Herdman repeated. “When you look at Prince, he's got some great experiences and carries a level of poise with him. You look at Diomande, he’s been around and done some pretty cool things at LAFC; big experiences in the UK. And Ayo Akinola, we've all seen what Ayo can deliver. I recruited him for Canada on the back of an MLS is Back tournament where he was just on fire; I was there with him when he did his ACL, and I'm hoping, a year-and-a-half, two years beyond that this might be another opportunity for Ayo to break out.”
“And then we've got Charlie Sharp, Hugo, Jordan Perruzza, the list is pretty long,” he added. “We've brought Charlie into preseason. He had an impressive NCAA season, it's always hard to judge the standard there, but it's never easy to score. That was the marker for us. He showed some real consistency in the area that’s his job.”
The unsigned Sharp was a finalist for the 2023 MAC Hermann Trophy, awarded to the top NCAA player, after scoring 19 goals and adding eight assists for Western Michigan University.
There is always a certain amount of excitement that comes with preseason getting underway, the first-day-of-school comparison is often made.
Jonathan Osorio, embarking on his 12th preseason with TFC, is no stranger to the process, but even for him it marked a new day for the club.
“It started in the off-season with the individual programs that we were given and the amount of communication across the board, from coaches to players, from players to players,” he said. “Everybody keeping in touch was really important.”
“A good step in the right direction,” Osorio called it. “The way we've come into preseason, it's very, very positive.”