Toronto FC head to Utah in good spirits.
The team will face Real Salt Lake on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium on the back of two straight 2-1 wins at BMO Field. Separated by an international break, victories over D.C. United and NYCFC are an indication that the team is heading in the right direction.
“We feel good about the progress,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley on Thursday. “There's still a lot to do, a lot of things that we look at and feel like need to continue to get better, but for a new team, for a young team, early in the season to be able to find ways to to win games and to pick up points that part's really important.”
“It's important for confidence, it's important just to give a little bit of confirmation or belief to the work that we're doing every single day,” he added. “The group's in a good way, guys feel good about everything, but we all understand there's still a lot more to give.”
One of the threads early in the season is that young players have been given their chance to shine and have seized it with both hands. The latest to do so was Kosi Thompson, who impressed in his first start on Saturday.
Post-match Thompson highlighted the environment of trust that has been created within the side. Bob Bradley plays a major role in that, giving these talented youngsters their chance, but he is not the sole source.
“It's not just about what coaches want, it's about how you bring experienced guys and make sure that they understand the importance of their leadership every single day,” explained the coach. “When you've got experienced players that show the young players, follow up with young players, talk to young players, encourage young players that makes a big difference.”
The new additions have fit well into that ethos.
“The dynamic is very good,” replied Michael Bradley. “Guys like Carlos Salcedo and Jesús Jiménez have come in and established themselves as important players, as leaders. You can see every day how excited they are to be here, how motivated they are.”
“And our young players continue to make such big progress. They can all sense the environment and how good it's going to be for them. They all recognize that in a lot of ways the roles that they have within our team are bigger than ever and so you start to see even more of their personality come out, which is really important,” he continued. “Just like we work at things on the field, we continue to work to make sure the dynamic and the mentality within the group is right, but things are going in a good direction.”
Five matches into a 34-game season, the sheen of new will start to wear off eventually. Five games in each of April and May will lead into another international break at the start of June, but then the summer MLS grind begins. Three matches to close that month will lead into six apiece in July and August.
Keeping guys engaged is one of the manager’s many responsibilities.
“I appreciate guys that love the game, guys that want to get better. I want to find a way with each player to open up their mind a little bit and find the right way to connect with them. Part of it is pushing them and part of it is encouragement and there’s some extra things,” explained Bradley Senior. “The overall response in the group has been good. We keep trying to make sure that that part never fades.”
“I said it to Mike the other day,” added Bob. “‘It's one thing when you start preseason everybody's eager. Now you get into the season and the grind a little bit and you’ve got to make sure that guys come in every day with that mentality.’”
Fostering the right kind of environment is at the core.
“It all goes together,” levelled the coach. “And it's connected to the bigger part of how you try to establish professionalism and standards and love of the game and being into training and watching games around the world and seeing little things that now you think you can apply.”
“If you don't love this game, if you don't appreciate – I spoke a little bit before training today about [Karim] Benzema and Real Madrid,” he continued, recalling the UEFA Champions League match the day before. “I mean, if you can watch that game and see this player, the commitment that he had. The first goal he's come way underneath, he's been involved a couple times in the build-up, but in the final moment, when that advantage comes, the way he takes off into the box and just the ability then to arrange himself and score that header. If these kinds of things don't connect with you, then something's wrong. We try to, in all those ways, get guys excited about the work every day.”
It helps that an element of normal has returned to life, unlike the last few seasons.
“Just being able to come in here every day,” began Michael of being back at the BMO Training Ground after seasons spent in East Hartford and Orlando. “Being able to leave and pick up my kids from school and get them to soccer practice and ballet class, whatever it is they're doing in the afternoons, and walk in the door at night and have dinner at home – those things, you can't put a value on that.”
“In terms of overall fun, happiness, balance, yeah, I think we're all really enjoying that,” he smiled. “And the last part that goes with that is the atmosphere in the stadium is now starting to come back in a really big way. That's probably the most exciting thing.”
Toronto will return home to face the Philadelphia Union in front of the BMO faithful next weekend, but first a tricky away trip to the altitude of Salt Lake City awaits.
Pablo Mastroeni’s side enters the match winless in two, having lost 1-0 away to Sporting KC at the end of March and drawn 1-1 away to the Colorado Rapids last weekend.
A streak of three wins before that – over the Seattle Sounders, the New England Revolution, and Nashville SC – has many wondering if this team has taken a step forward under their new coach.
Mastroeni took over coaching duties on an interim basis towards the end of 2021 and led his side into the MLS Cup Playoffs, earning a famous, perhaps infamous, shootout win over the Sounders in the first round with an ultra defensive performance.
With an off-season under their belt, despite losing one of their stars Albert Rusnák to those same Sounders and another, Damir Kreilach, just returning from injury, Mastroeni has progressed the team in quick order.
“He's done a very good job,” remarked Bob Bradley, who once coached Mastroeni with the US national team. “It was was a little bit at the back end of his career, but when I started with the national team his presence in the group was still very, very important.”
“He didn't go to Confederations Cup and then ultimately was not part of the World Cup team in 2010 – there's all sorts of factors and there's tough decisions to be made, but you really appreciate the experienced guys that help establish the right mentality and help show young guys what it means to be on the national team and to come into camps the right way,” he continued. “Pablo was always one of those guys and I think that's still what he brings as a coach: he's passionate about the game, he's committed, he wants guys that will give you everything. That's how he played and that's certainly what you see with his teams.”
Bobby Wood and Tate Schmitt lead the side with two goals apiece, while midfielder Pablo Ruiz has chipped in a pair of assists.
Toronto expect a fierce challenge.
“At times they've played with three in the back – I would call it a 3-4-3. They've played 4-4-2, they've played 4-3-3,” detailed Coach Bradley. “Some of that is that they are trying to establish some flexibility with their tactics, but it's also been related to injuries. The one thing I'll always say with Pablo’s teams is Pablo has a way to get everybody to buy in and play hard with a strong mentality.”
“They had a run at the end of last year, which was just a bunch of guys that just kept grinding out results, had some late goals, and so they've got that kind of confidence,” he closed. “Hard to play against and just a team that when you play, you have to be sharp and at your best.”