Toronto FC returned from their base camp in Orlando, Florida at the start of the Gold Cup break and have been busy preparing for what the next stage of the 2021 season has in store.
That when play resumes they can do it on home turf, well, there aren’t really words for that.
“The team [has been] waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Javier Perez from BMO Field. “We trained here at the stadium. The last time we trained here was February or March, so it's been a long time.”
“It makes a big difference for the players,” he continued. “Feeling the hospitality, the warmth, playing on the home field. Right away when we trained here, we see a different atmosphere, the motivation. The fans are the ones that drive the team. Every player is ready for the game tomorrow.”
On the heels of a well-earned 3-2 win away to the New England Revolution on July 7, TFC will be looking to carry that momentum into Saturday and beyond.
“Two things that were a little bit out of reach just a short time ago,” said Alex Bono, of both a home match and a victory. “So we're happy about both. Happy to come off a win; definitely happy to be home.”
“And the mix of those emotions together has the guys on a real high right now,” he continued. “Everyone's getting settled back into their living spaces in Toronto, to their families. Guys that are new to the team are finding their way around the city and around the stadium and the training facility. Definitely excited, definitely ready to go tomorrow, and I think we're in for a really special atmosphere and a really special welcoming back.”
After a fine showing from the team in his inaugural match on the touchlines, Perez has had a little bit more time to prepare for Orlando City SC than he did ahead of his first game in charge.
“It’s not always that because you have more time you prepare better,” he smiled. “But it gives you more time to adjust things and make sure that everything is prepared in detail. The preparation has been very similar [to what we did before New England].”
“We have been working a little bit more on the style of play, so we had a couple of days where we worked on [that],” Perez continued. “And then the last few days it’s been working on the defensive part and the attacking part.”
Conceding early and often has been at the centre of many of those conversations.
“We've talked a lot about it because it's been a huge issue,” levelled Bono. “It's a bit of self infliction. We've done a lot of giving the ball away in poor spaces. Giving up goals early in the games is a real knife-in-the-back for all of us – that's the worst way to start a game.”
“So we've talked about being compact defensively to start games, being smart and safe, not putting ourselves behind the eight-ball before the game even really kicks off and make sure we give ourselves a real chance to play ourselves into the game. Those were the two big ones for me,” he continued. “Really our main focus is keeping teams off the score-sheet.”
“We know that we have enough quality to score goals,” Bono added. “And while we've worked on that as well, keeping teams off the score sheet and giving ourselves a chance to play into the game has really been at the front of our minds.”
Saturday’s opposition will be a familiar one.
TFC and Orlando City have already met twice this season with the Lions winning both matches at Exploria Stadium, their temporary shared home.
Orlando won the first meeting 1-0 on May 22 and the second 3-2 on June 19.
Perez expects a different result this time around.
“They were playing at home both games, even if one of them was intended to be a ‘home’ game for us. It was both games at home for them,” he explained. “It's going to be much different to play in our own stadium, in front of our fans. It is going to be a different atmosphere, it's going to be a different game.”
Orlando come to town on the back of two losses – 3-1 away to the Chicago Fire on July 7 and 2-1 versus the New York Red Bulls on July 3 – and will be looking to respond and close the three-point gap between themselves and New England at the top of the Eastern Conference.
To be playing a team for the third time just 13 games into a season is peculiar, but that intimate familiarity will have its advantages.
“We know this team. We know this team well,” said Bono. “We used their stadium. We played them twice there. One home, one away, technically. We know their players, we know their tendencies, we know their tactics. We know how they press, we know how they build. We know how they counter. And that's all stuff that Javier has been preparing us for and the rest of the coaching staff.”
“We've used a lot of video from success and difficulties that we personally have had against them,” he continued. “That's always the benefit of when you play a team a second or third time, you've got film based on them playing against you, your players, your strengths, your weaknesses, so that's helpful. We studied a lot of film, talked a lot about them, some key players and some key spaces they like to exploit. We'll be ready.”
Whomever the opponent, Saturday will be special. TFC are home.
“The first day we walked into the training facility and we had a glimpse of what we experienced back in February/March, everybody had a smile on their face,” relayed Perez. “And that is really important for the spirit of the team, the players, the staff. I'm extremely happy that we are back home and now we get to enjoy doing what we love in the setup that is perfect for us.”
And there will be fans in the stands, albeit a limited number. The last time that happened at BMO Field was March 7, 2020 against NYCFC – a 1-0 TFC win.
“We had a game last year in Connecticut where we had supporters, we were playing [Inter] Miami [CF],” recalled Bono. “And it was weird because we allowed fans to our ‘home’ stadium in Hartford, Connecticut and all they wanted to see was [Gonzalo] Higuain and [Blaise] Matuidi, the Miami players.”
“This will be our first real home game in quite a long time,” he smiled. “The fact that we can have fans here is even more special.”
“Just walking around the city the last couple of days, so many people have come up to me and have said, ‘Can't wait to be there. So excited to have the team back. We’re behind you guys.’ The support has really been pretty overwhelming,” Bono continued. “I'm sure that it'll be hard for me to not be emotional tomorrow, stepping back out there and being at BMO Field, out on the grass with fans in the stands will be really exciting.”
“Everyone's excited,” he added. “Honestly, I don't really remember what your original question was, I got so excited talking about being a home.”
498 days between home fixtures with fans in the stands. 16-plus months.
And there will be some special guests in attendance as MLSE and TFC have invited healthcare workers and first responders to BMO.
“It means everything to us,” said Perez. “I've been here for a short period of time, but right away I see that this club is different. I see that the team is surrounded by a staff and the city is very, very supportive. It's interesting to come here and feel the hospitality and support of everybody in the club and in the city. It’s going to be a massive boost for the [push to] playoffs.”
If it wasn’t for all their hard work, this wouldn’t even be possible.
“It's a different situation if people aren't putting their lives on the line every day to keep people safe and help people out of illness,” reflected Bono. “I hope that in a way, it can be us celebrating what they've done.”
“That's the intention: we say ‘thank you’ to them, to the hardships that they've gone through more than anyone else, by inviting them to the game and having them come out and watch some live sports,” he continued. “In reality we're not here, playing in Toronto, without their endless support, endless efforts to fight this pandemic.”
“I really hope it can be a celebration of the effort they’ve made and the sacrifices that they've made for us. They're the real heroes,” Bono added. “And they're the people that we should be thanking for being able to be home in Toronto.”