MLS returns from the June international break this weekend after three weeks off.
It may already be starting to feel like summer, but it is worth remembering the season is basically six weeks old and there is a lot of football still to be played.
“We're seven games into the MLS season, we've got 80% of the season remaining,” reminded TFC General Manager Ali Curtis when he opened a conference call on Monday. “We set goals and objectives in the beginning of the year and we still feel that we will achieve those goals at the end.”
“It's been a difficult preseason, with COVID and all the different movements and schedule congestion,” he continued. “We've got to find a way to get some results and to execute. We're excited about this Saturday against Orlando.”
Toronto FC will return to the pitch on Saturday night with a rematch against Orlando City SC, who beat them 1-0 on May 22.
Though much of the conversation swirled around the continued absence of Jozy Altidore, Curtis wanted the positives to get some airing as well.
“Our younger players, homegrown guys, have gotten some minutes and some experiences, which is good. When you look at the primary transfer window we feel that we've added some really dynamic players in [Yeferson] Soteldo, Dom Dwyer, Kemar Lawrence. Guys who will make us good now and in the later months September, October, November, and, hopefully, December. [Alejandro] Pozuelo being back is a game-changer. He was the MVP for a reason,” he listed. “We are all hopeful about the potential to come back to BMO Field. We would love to get back the minute the light switch goes on. It’s part of who we are. It's our home.”
“Trophies are not won in the first seven games of the season. They’re won in the middle, they’re won at the end,” he noted. “The focus this week will be on what's in front of us, which is the game against Orlando – have a good week of training, come together and try to get a result, and then we can build on that, go from there.”
With the first muddled portion of the 2021 schedule in the books, TFC find themselves in unfamiliar environs towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference on five points from seven matches.
“It's not been the start that any of us would have wanted to the league, there's no two ways about that,” levelled Michael Bradley. “There's so much that has gone into all of it, from the beginning this year. Those aren't excuses; it's just the reality of our situation right now, of what the last few months have been like. There's things on the field, there's things off the field, but over this next stretch we have to raise our level, we have to start to pick up more points on more days, we have to start to move ourselves forward in in a real way, in terms of taking who we are and what we want to be and making that count for more on more days.”
“It's been a strange start to the season,” he continued. “With the fact that the start to the season got pushed back, it’s still very early. We're not happy with how that first [20%] has played out, especially in terms of the points that we've taken, but it's easy to look at everything right now and feel like things are worse than they actually are. We still feel good about the group that we have, about the way that we're working every day and feel like there are a lot of games left for us to show that.”
“But we also understand that you can't keep saying that for weeks on end,” Bradley stressed. “We have to now make sure that over this next stretch we take care of business and start to put ourselves back in a good position.”
Looking back over the seven games played, there has been no one source to finger.
The first three matches, leaving a lacklustre showing in New Jersey against the Red Bulls to the side, could be chalked up to growing pains and the Concacaf Champions League drawing focus and causing fixture congestion. Toronto looked to have turned the corner with a strong win in Columbus and a hard-fought draw in New York City against NYCFC, but subsequent losses to Orlando City and the Crew have brought questions.
During the break, Chris Armas has been analyzing the information garnered over those opening weeks.
“We're not giving up a ton of shots per game, but we give up some of the most shots on goal in the league. We've given up some big chances. Why does that happen?” he setup. “They come from transition moments, losing the ball in bad spots, cheap giveaways at times, and even sometimes structurally – how can the coaching staff set the team up in a way where when we give away balls in bad parts of the field, are we structurally set up?”
“[Jonathan] Osorio, Pozuelo, [Chris] Mavinga, Richie Laryea, Omar [Gonzalez],” referenced Armas, listing key players who have missed action. “You’re doing lots of this good work and putting in analysis, but you’re still missing three of the back four.”
“As much as we've tried to take steps forward, it's still a little bit scattered in terms of having the whole group together,” he continued. “It doesn't work that way: you can't take a massive step forward when you're missing a few guys.”
“I can assure you, and the players can attest, we're taking hard looks, we're having very specific trainings to address things, and there's a big commitment from the guys. They know that I’m in, I know that they’re in, and we're in together,” Armas added. “We know we're close. We're fighting for every little inch and when we're full strength we know we will be a force.”
Much has been made of the stylistic change that a new coach would bring, perhaps too much. It is evolution, not revolution.
“Everyone wants to make so much of this idea of style of play,” replied Bradley, asked about the difficulties. “On one hand I get it, on the other hand, we were fortunate to have five, six years of real consistency in terms of the players, in terms of the coach. We've turned the page now, Chris has come in, and the things that made us successful, some of those things will still be a part of us being successful in the future, but other things will be different.”
“That's normal. That's reality. Anytime you change your coach, anytime you bring in a handful of new players, the dynamic inside the team changes, there's different qualities, there's different character. Everything changes a little bit,” he continued. “Chris has his own ideas. He wants us to take a lot of what we've done in the past and continue to use that, but we want to add to that. We want to be a team that can be a little bit more aggressive, we want to be a team that can press a little bit more, that can play a little bit more vertical, but the idea has never been to throw everything out and go completely the other direction.”
A TFC that plays the game with the same qualities, but does so with more urgency, more intensity, more drive – is relentless, is ruthless – is not one that many opponents will relish coming up against.
“We are going to become a team, and we're on our way, that plays with more intensity,” summed up Armas, asked if ‘pressing’ has been misinterpreted. “On our training pitches, in each 18-yard box, call it 18 by 20, from the goal-line to the top of the 18 and 20 yards wide, we paint in a red, each end of the field – that's where games are won and lost.”
“I think that we can run more into that area to score goals and [with] intensity,” he continued. “That when we get in certain moments, that we have guys that there’s nothing in the world that matters more than to score this goal by arriving at the right moment, in the right way.”
“And the other side of the field is also in red, that when the ball comes in here, from our goalkeeper to our outside backs to a recovering six, that there has got to be a real pride involved, an urgency,” Armas stressed. “That [players think], ‘No chance. I’ve got supporters back home watching this, I'm going to put out this fire for them, for my teammates. Yeah, that's what I'm about.’ An injection of that, I think this team could use that.”
Saturday’s match begins the next five-game stretch of the season. Five games in 19 days before MLS again pauses for this summer’s Gold Cup.
After Orlando, TFC will travel to Nashville SC for a midweek match before a home match against FC Cincinnati at a yet-to-be-determine site the following Saturday. A week later they hit the road for two-straight with stops at D.C. United and the New England Revolution.
The message heading in is a familiar one.
“One half at a time, one game at a time, and then we reset it and keep going,” said Armas. “All along we're building – a house in a hurricane sometimes it feels like – we're getting stronger physically, we're getting healthier, but [it’s] one game at a time.”
“There's no easy games in this league and the margins are thin. There's no profound message to the team,” he added. “It's three points, total concentration, 45 minutes at a time.”
And the schedule beyond is a world away for the moment, but getting closer all the time.
Ontario has entered the first stage of their reopening plan with outdoor sporting events expected to resume in stage two. The federal government has approved travel exemptions for NHL teams during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The year-plus of permanently playing on the road could be nearing its end.
“It goes without saying that there isn't a person here who isn’t counting down the days until we're back home,” smiled Bradley. “Back in our homes, back at the training ground, back at BMO field – hopefully, not long after with some number of our fans in the stadium.”
“We can't wait for that,” he continued. “It's been a crazy 18 months for everybody. Obviously people have suffered and hurt in much bigger ways than Toronto FC not being able to play at home, but when you start to think about returning to a version of normal over this next stretch a big part of that for all of us is going to be getting back to the day where we can live in Toronto, where we can drive to our training ground in Downsview and on Saturday when we can drive down to BMO Field and play in front of our fans.”
“We continue to hope that that day is getting closer and closer. It's impossible to predict how anything goes, as we've learned over the last year,” Bradley added. “We'll be ready whenever they give us the green light to get back home and we'll certainly enjoy every part of that like never before. But in the meantime we've got to continue to work and push and make sure that we're in as good a spot as possible whenever we are able to come back home.”