Fresh off their first victory of the season last weekend at BMO Field, Toronto FC return to the road ahead of a clash with the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night.
New week, new opponent, new challenges.
Toronto will be without the services of five players this weekend. Ayo Akinola, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea, Jonathan Osorio (Canada), and Tomás Romero (El Salvador) are away with their respective national teams.
It’s an all hands-on-deck-plus kind of situation.
“Yeah, basically,” agreed Bob Bradley on Friday afternoon. “And then we'll also finalize paperwork on [Alonso] Coello Camarero and [Markus] Cimermancic from TII. As we did oftentimes last year when our numbers were smaller, we do the short-term loan option to bring guys up from the second team.”
“Alonso and Markus were with us throughout preseason, so we feel like they're part of our team,” he added. “Even though they are still TII players.”
Every season’s schedule has its quirks. MLS had gone away from playing during international windows in recent years, but the addition of the midseason Leagues Cup pause necessitated sacrifice.
“It's new to me that we play games when there’s an international break, I haven't tried that before,” said Sigurd Rosted. “ A little bit surprised, but we are here now and we are ready for the task.”
“Of course we miss a lot of guys, but there's a big, strong group and we have guys coming into the team,” he added. “So we're ready for it.”
It’s been a whirlwind start to the 2023 campaign, especially for the new recruits.
“A crazy game in D.C. and then we had a good team performance against Atlanta, where we took a strong point in a difficult away game. We didn’t win against Columbus, that was a little bit unfortunate – we were not happy about that – and then a really good win against Miami,” recounted Rosted of the opening four matches. “I would say a mixed start, going upwards from the beginning.”
But if the victory and clean-sheet against Miami was any indication – Rosted was a subtle rock that night – he and the rest of the defensive unit have settled in nicely.
“When players come in, even experienced players, they try to develop relationships with teammates both on and off the field,” explained Bradley. “Sigurd is a really good guy. He's had the experience of playing in different places, but you see, every week, a little bit more comfort with what's going on around him. There are probably some things that we do slightly differently than other teams he's played on, but he's not fazed by anything.”
“He knows, he watches a lot of football, how a lot of different teams in the world play, how different centre-backs operate. We pick up on those things and continue to try to develop the understanding between players,” continued the coach. “He and Matt [Hedges], in a short amount of time, have a very good understanding.”
That first shutout is just another layer to the foundation.
“Very important,” stressed Rosted. “It's always a very good feeling when you have a clean-sheet after a game.”
“It takes time to know the players around you, we are a lot of new teammates, especially in the back – the keeper as well,” he added. “There's been progress and we're hoping that will continue.”
Saturday will be the final match of the opening month of the season – that one game in February aside – and TFC feel good about the steps they have taken.
“We're making progress,” said Bradley. “The group has a good idea of how we can be a complete team, the mix between the way we defend and some of our attacking ideas. We can still be sharper in moments when we go forward, when we create advantages.”
“That's an important part of becoming a good team,” he continued. “We've put ourselves in pretty good positions, not created enough big chances, but we all feel good that the work is going in the right direction.”
“The best teams are the teams that get better as the season goes along: you see little things come together, you see players improve. That's the work that goes on every day, the work that goes on as you go through a week, take information from one game, try to share it in different ways, whether it's group video, individual video, get on the field, coach certain things,” Bradley detailed. “The process is going well. It was really nice this week to get outside and be on grass all week, even though it was a little bit cold. Hopefully we can carry that into this game.”
For Rosted, as a player new to the league, every week, each new opponent, brings a dossier of information from his coaches and teammates to absorb.
“A lot of things to take in: about players, how they play, and the teams as well. There's a lot of information for me to take on, but that's good,” he explained. “That's always the way it is when you come to a new league. I take in all I can. Today there's a video session about San Jose and I will have to pay attention as well for that.”
The Earthquakes too are undergoing some significant changes from last season.
Luchi Gonzalez took over the managerial duties in San Jose from interim Alex Covelo, who stepped in with the early 2022 departure of Matías Almeyda.
His influence is evident.
“They're a different style of team,” summed up Bradley. “Luchi’s ideas are very different than Almeyda’s.”
“You see that with some of their build-ups, you see that with the way they spread the field, and then you see it on the defensive side. Almeyda was a Bielsa disciple, they played more man-to-man, followed players and Luchi would have a mix of ideas defensively – when to get tight, how to stay connected as a group.”
San Jose opened the season with a 2-1 loss away to Atlanta United, but won their next two at home – 2-1 against Vancouver Whitecaps FC and 1-0 over the Colorado Rapids. Back on the road last weekend they fell 3-0 to expansion side St. Louis CITY SC, the only team in the league off to a perfect start.
Striker Jeremy Ebobisse leads the way with two goals, while Argentine midfielder Cristian Espinoza has two assists through four matches.
“They've shown moments of good football,” highlighted Bradley. “Some of the key players from the past are still the ones to focus on. Espinoza is a very good player, right-sided, very dangerous going forward, whips in really good balls, good deliveries on set-pieces. Ebobisse has been an important player for them, they like to play the ball up to him where he can hold on to it or lay it off, plus his movement into the box is quite good. Jackson Yueill in the midfield has been an important part of their team.”
“Certain guys that have been there that they continue to rely on,” he closed. “And then some different ideas in terms of how they play.”