Reds shift focus to Champions League as preseason continues in Mexico

Mexico Preseason

TORONTO – Back in town for a brief stopover, Toronto FC embarked on the second phase of their preseason Tuesday, traveling to Mexico City with a CONCACAF Champions League date just two weeks away.

The club returned to Toronto on Saturday following the first portion of training camp in Los Angeles. And with another change of location, the focus again shifts.

“It is going to be more tactical in nature,” coach Greg Vanney said Monday following the public introduction of new signing Gregory van der Wiel. “A lot of LA was about fitness: legs, principles by which we are looking to play, getting everybody on the same page. Now, we'll get more specific: use games to hone in, start game planning and preparing for Colorado, have ourselves in the possible best shape to start in a couple weeks.”

While in the Mexican capital, TFC will play four matches over nine days, including three against Liga MX opposition – Club America, Pachuca, and Cruz Azul — after already having played Club Tijuana in San Diego last week.

With the fourth match falling on the weekend, when the big teams are occupied with league play, TFC will face a yet-to-be-identified local squad.

“They tend to play a lot against the first division teams there,” said Vanney. “It will be a good test for some of our guys.”

Toronto will split the roster for the four matches.

“Not everybody will play every game,” Vanney said. “Each will get two-by-ninety, so they get the feel of what a long game looks like. The added part is that Mexico City is at altitude, so we'll start the process of adjustment while we're there. We'll have experienced that before we go to Colorado.”

Just what the Colorado Rapids will throw at TFC on Feb. 20 in the first leg of their 2018 CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 series at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is a bit of a mystery.

The Rapids have made a lot of changes in the offseason, beginning with hiring former New Zealand national team manager Anthony Hudson as the club's new coach. For Toronto, that leaves any scouting from last year mostly moot.

“We won't know everything,” Vanney admitted. “There are some tendencies with coaches that you can pick up based on previous places they've been. None of us can have big secrets, even as we go through preseason: everybody knows everybody.”

Vanney said he believes the Rapids will play a 3-5-2 but wants to “focus on ourselves” as CCL play looms.

“For them, the challenge they will have is: it is a new team, a lot of new faces, with a new coach, new ideas,” he said. “They don't have a lot of time to waste on little nuances to play us. They're trying to establish their own vision for their game and culture, trying to lay the foundation for their whole season, not just the games against us. I don't expect any tricks.”

With van der Wiel having met up with the side and Tosaint Ricketts feeling better after an unexpected thyroid issue, Toronto head to Mexico with their full complement of players, as well as a few others – namely, Tsubasa Endoh and some from TFC II.

And TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, having completed one major TAM move, may have a couple of more up his sleeve.

“We have more TAM, between the mandatory and the discretionary,” said Bezbatchenko. “The discretionary is 'use it or lose it'. We still have only 16 players on our senior roster; we still need one or two more signings to complete what we're trying to do.”

As for the current crop of players, they've had precious little down time over the past two seasons with Toronto having reached the last two MLS Cups. But Vanney sees no effect from the shorter offseasons and lack of rest.

“The group is really eager,” the TFC coach said. “Everybody hates preseason, but the motivation, the competitiveness, for every training session has been there. I see more an excitement to start a season and go for everyday and every game just like we did last year.”