Toronto FC

Toronto FC aim to start season strong with "a new team identity" vs. D.C. United 

The wait is over.

Toronto FC will kick off the 2023 MLS regular season on Saturday night against D.C. United at Audi Field, opening kick at 7:30 pm (watch free on the Apple TV app and TSN).

Preseason is over, it’s time for the real thing.

“The group is feeling good, we're excited,” said Mark-Anthony Kaye on Thursday. “Excited to know that we're now going to be in a routine where we have a game every week and that's the best day of the week, playing a game.”

“We've all been waiting for the season to start once 2022 was over,” he continued. “Everyone's good, everyone feels like they're ready to contribute in whatever way they're needed.”

It’s been a long seven weeks of preparations, plenty of time spent on the training pitch in sessions, bracing for this moment with scrimmages and friendlies, welcoming all the new faces to the club.

“Preseason has been great,” said Sean Johnson, one of those many newcomers. “Getting to know the guys in front of me, getting on the same page, trying to get better each and every single day, working with one another, developing the relationships that we need on and off the pitch.”

“We're all excited going into Saturday, kicking off the season, and really getting into the grind of the games,” he added. “It's a special group of guys and we'll continue to improve, but obviously Saturday is something we've been looking forward to all preseason.”

As the fun begins, TFC will play one match a week for the next twelve weeks before the schedule accelerates mid-May. The work of preseason is to lay the foundation; now it is about adding to it.

“We settle into a routine where we play week-to-week, establishing good training weeks,” anticipated Bob Bradley.

“We have moments where the understanding on the field is going in a really good direction,” he explained of the progress made already. “We do have an ability, when things are sharp, to move the ball quickly, find the right player, move up the field. We’ve done a good job of controlling games and defending better, not giving away as much in transition.”

“Our pure ability to create good chances, score goals, that has to improve, but there's a lot of things there that tell us we have the chance to have a good team,” Bradley continued. “And then the reminders are how a team sticks together for 90 minutes, how it competes – if something goes against you how everybody has to keep going.”

“This part has less to do with your ideas, but more with the overall mentality of the team,” he added. “We've got to have an ability to deal with situations and keep everybody going, everybody understanding 'what I need to do to make this team better every second of the game' – that's part of our work right now.”

Saturday is expected to see the debuts of many of the offseason additions: Johnson, Matt Hedges, Sigurd Rosted, Raoul Petretta, and Adama Diomande. Victor Vázquez is nursing a blow and will not be available, while Tomás Romero and the most recent recruit, Brandon Servania, will most likely be on the bench.

The ‘Welcoming Committee’ has been busy.

“The majority of this team is new,” smiled Kaye. “There's that excitement of wanting to create a new team identity. When you look at our roster, one to eleven, those guys are all experienced, and then we've got a lot of good depth coming off the bench and young talent. Obviously we still are going to need time to continue to gel, but I think just because of the personnel that we have on the team we're able to speed things up a little bit.”

Add in the returning faces – Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Richie Laryea, Kaye, and so on – and that list includes a lot of experience, both in MLS and beyond.

“We've all been in different places, we've all had different roles in different places, but part of being a professional and excelling and doing what you do best is really being able to come into a new environment and adapting quickly,” said Johnson. “Obviously, there's the tactical understanding of what Bob wants and then as a group it's up to us to get on the same page, but happy so far with how we’ve gelled and we'll use every single game this season to get better.”

That maturity will be invaluable for the long season ahead.

“We have a lot of guys that we can rely on to step up and take control of different situations,” highlighted Kaye. “Preseason has allowed us to build that team chemistry and that team spirit, get guys settled in the way we want to play. It’s a more experienced team, a more complete team, and that's what you want when you want to go and win an MLS Cup.”

Partnerships on the field, friendships off it, are still being formed, but a lot can be achieved quickly in close quarters with a shared goal in mind.

“Preseason is long,” explained Johnston. “Aside from the training there's a lot of time in the day.”

“Spending time together around meals and in meetings and around the hotel, really getting to know each other on a personal level. What's most important is that we have a good group of guys,” he continued. “I can’t give you an insider to all the things we’ve done together, but I'm sure you'll see some content throughout the year of us together as a group.”

“We're human beings at the end of the day, we have a good group of guys and that's the most important thing in terms of building a culture,” Johnson added. “That's the foundation for success and achieving big things.”

It all begins on Saturday against D.C.

These early weeks are always a bit of a step into the unknown. Every team in the league has made changes over the offseason and the body of work to scout is rather limited.

“We've had a good preseason. We've seen guys get closer and closer to being 100% fit – not everybody's all the way there, but we've made real strides. We've been able to establish good ideas on how we want to play and how we need to improve, so that's positive,” outlined Bradley. “We have a bit of an idea of D.C. – players that have been used, their overall style of play, we got a chance to watch them in Palm Desert a little bit – so we use those things and have our guys ready.”

Add in that Wayne Rooney has only been the head coach since mid-July of last season and that D.C. has seen more than their fair share of departures and additions makes this clash an intriguing contest.

“It’s a different team,” said Johnson. “We know some of those guys in the past – [Taxi] Fountas, [Christian] Benteke, now Pedro Santos, they’ve added some players. It's important to go into Saturday, first and foremost focusing on ourselves here and what we have to do collectively to go forward and impose ourselves in a tough place to play.”

D.C. finished last in both the Eastern Conference and the league last season, but Rooney and company will be eager to change those fortunes.

Fountas led the side with 12 goals in 21 matches after joining late as a designated player, Benteke has just one goal in seven appearances, but has a resume that speaks for itself. With Ola Kamara departing he will be expected to factor more.

“I don’t know much, we haven't done film yet,” admitted Kaye. “We'll do film tomorrow, but the first game of the season is always interesting, right? There's not enough film and a lot of teams make changes in the offseason. So other than Tyler [Miller, formerly of LAFC] and [Alex] Bono, guys that I've played with, I don't know too much about how they play and how they're going to line up, but I know Wayne Rooney is a smart footballing mind and he'll have them ready to go.”

The first game of the season heralds much that is new. That said, there are some things that never change.

“I'm always looking for the same,” replied Bob Bradley, asked what he wanted to see as his side embarks on the new year. “I'm looking for football where the ideas of how to play and then the mentality of the group: the ability to create chances and then quickly react and understand how to defend when we don't have the ball.”

“I appreciate that in the best teams that I watch,” he closed. “And the work is always to try to make sure that our team can play like that.”