Toronto FC head into the weekend a little bit worse for wear.
Playing their first three-game week of the 2022 season, missing key players through injury, health & safety protocols, and suspension, and having suffered defeat in their last three outings.
It’s been a tough spell.
“Luckily you don't have this every week,” said Bob Bradley on Saturday from Vancouver. “But there are moments in seasons where games crash together and if it coincides with other factors, then yeah, you scramble a little bit.”
“The challenge always is to find a steady way to keep everybody going,” he continued. “The travel here was easy. We had a late training session before we left yesterday, we'll train here this afternoon, assess where we are with different guys physically and make sure everybody's ready to go tomorrow.”
TFC face Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Sunday and they do so with a growing list of absentees: Jonathan Osorio, Chris Mavinga, Carlos Salcedo, Ifunanyachi Achara, Nobel Okello, Ralph Priso, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty will all be unavailable.
“Different guys get called on, when it's your turn, you’ve got to be ready,” outlined the coach. “That's why you try to create a good environment, have real training, find a good way to engage everybody on a regular basis. When things hit then the need for leadership, the need for strength, the belief in the work that we do every day, those things are all very, very important.”
A team is built to weather these tough stretches. They know these times will come.
“It's been a difficult stretch for a lot of reasons, but you know over the course of the season that everyone has to be able to deal with periods like this,” levelled Michael Bradley. “No one's feeling sorry for themselves, we look around and feel like we have a lot of good players, guys who are ready for opportunities.”
“No one's worrying about who's here, who's not here, about how things have gone,” he added. “We all understand that, especially early in the season, the ability to go through tough moments, come out better for them, that's all part of it, so that’s what we’ll do.”
In some ways a team needs moments like this.
“Need?” quibbled Bob Bradley. “It's more that no one becomes a good team where it just goes your way all the time and so you do learn from tough stretches.”
“When you have a team that has gone through everything that this group endured over the past couple of years and with the changes that have been made, we knew that as we entered this season, there was a lot of work to be done,” he continued. “We set out to do it in a strong, positive way – that hasn’t changed. We know [the importance of] the ability to keep guys going, even in moments where they're a little bit down.”
“Making sure Ralph, after the last game understands, we’ve got to learn from this,” highlighted the coach, referring to the midweek red card against FC Cincinnati. “I told him [Real Madrid’s] Casemiro had a really bad foul early in the second leg versus Man City, but he's Casemiro, so maybe he gets away with it, but that your ability in the early minutes to still be engaged, to concentrate, to not allow a situation where you just go into a rash challenge. I could go through so many moments, situations where you hope that now the experience is going to make the guy better in the next game or the game after that.”
“That's the work right now,” Bradley stressed. “Between video, training, one-on-ones. [Assistant coaches] Paul [Stalteri] and Mike [Sorber] have done a great job following up with players. We continue to make sure they know that this is hard work. It's not easy. That's just how it is. That's the reason that so many teams don't become good, because it's hard. But we're going to keep going.”
Toronto has brought in reinforcements for Sunday: Themi Antonoglou joins the first team on a homegrown contract, while his TFC II teammates Kobe Franklin, Paul Rothrock, and Steffen Yeates arrive once more on short-term loans.
There is a little something extra to these matches against distant Canadian cousins. Not in the same way as the games against CF Montreal, but there is something.
“I wouldn't call it a rivalry in any real sense. They have their history and their big games with Seattle and Portland. Having said that, when there's only three Canadian teams in the league, then sure there's a little part to it that factors in as well,” said Michael Bradley. “Regardless of anything else, it’s a big game for us, an important game. We're here ready to step on the field and really go after things in a strong way.”
Having ended the 2021 campaign unbeaten in nine matches to earn a place in the playoffs, 2022 has not been as fruitful for Vanni Sartini’s Whitecaps.
Bounced from the MLS Cup chase in the First Round by Sporting KC, Vancouver have struggled through the opening eight matches, winning one and drawing another.
They currently sit at the bottom of the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings, but with a bye week the Whitecaps have not played since April 24, a 2-1 loss away to Austin FC, their third-straight.
“Early in the season, I don't spend time looking at team’s records so much,” explained Bob Bradley. “I look at who's playing, what the team looks like.”
“When you have a week off in the middle of the season like this and then you get some players back, it's an opportunity for coaches to reboot things,” he continued. “There's talk that in this period, they've worked a little bit more on playing four in the back again, whereas from the middle of last season on more often than not they played with three, so it means that there's different ways that they can set up in this game. I would expect that they've used this time to really focus on a home game against a rival and an opportunity to get their season going back the way it finished last year.”
The TFC coach pointed to two massive absences as prime culprits in the difference between this year and last for the Whitecaps: Ryan Gauld had four goals and six assists in 18 appearances after joining midyear and Brian White recorded 12 goals and five assists in a breakout season.
Neither has been fully available yet this season.
“The two guys that were so important in the second half of last season, Gauld and White, have been in and out with injuries,” pinpointed the Toronto coach. “Both are back and they've had the week off. What I think about is when those two guys are at their best, what they bring to the team. When Gauld arrived, what a difference he made. White works hard, makes good runs, fights for balls in the box. So a lot of the things that we're focusing on revolve around the things that those two bring to the table.”
There’s no such thing as an easy game in MLS.
“We expect a very difficult game,” anticipated Michael Bradley. “Without knowing much, I can only imagine that they are frustrated with the start that they've had and so they'll be ready to throw everything they have into this game.”
“They, tactically, have a pretty clear idea of how they want to try to do things. So far this season some bounces, some different things haven't gone their way, but no one inside our group is looking past them in any way,” he closed. “It's a good team. Coming to play at BC Place is never easy, never straightforward. And so we know we have to be at our best.”