The first phase of preseason is coming to an end for Toronto FC.
The club has been in Palm Beach, Florida since January 16 and will return home on February 2 after playing their first match of the season against Nashville SC on Friday.
After less than a week in Toronto, the team will depart for Santa Barbara, California where the run up to the opening match of the season will continue.
This first game is all about ratcheting up the physical demands.
“The boys played 60 minutes in an intersquad, two 30-minutes. This will be pretty much 60-minutes max for each player,” said John Herdman on Wednesday. “120 minutes we've agreed to with Nashville and we’ll cut that time up accordingly.”
“It gives us a chance to work through some of the tactical partnerships and assess how far we are along with the tactical blueprint. We know a bit about Nashville, their style of play,” he continued. “They're going to come in ready given that they've played some matches already. It’s going to be a good test for the players.”
Gary Smith’s side has played two preseason matches already, drawing St. Louis CITY SC and defeating Sporting KC.
“Phase one is about a fitness focus and an assessment of the character of our players. We haven't had a great amount of time to work on the tactics,” Herdman added.
“We’ll push to get that physical outcome, but at the same time adapting to whatever Nashville are putting in front of us.”
The rough outline for Friday’s match is two 60-minute games, 30 minutes per half, with more-or-less wholesale changes in between – a chance to get every player to face that fitness challenge.
“We'll have a look at the heat and all those other factors,” explained Herdman of the details. “The beauty about these games is we’ll have a look. If we want to change it, that will play out on the day. That’s the plan at the moment, just to ramp the players up to that 60 minutes of real MLS intensity. There might be players who extend out for that extra 15-20 minutes because they're a bit younger or further along in their fitness. It’s not going to be a hard-and-fast two lineups, but it will certainly be the projection.”
Less than three weeks since players started reporting for medical testing, Herdman has seen significant progress in the key elements he and his staff have pinpointed for this part of the process.
“Looking at the team spirit, progressively you can see a greater level of honesty. That comes out in the competition where players are willing to just impose themselves a little bit more and be more physical, more aggressive, demand more,” he detailed. “We've seen that in the inter-squad and some of the competitive games that we create where we purposefully create these hot moments for players. That, to me, is a good eye test.”
“We have Robyn Gayle behind the scenes watching the video of some of the behaviours. Moments where players might have dropped their shoulders and relaxed, they’re stepping forward. In moments where a blind eye might have been turned to a recovery run that wasn’t tracked, that's getting called out,” Herdman continued. “The physical impact, imposing themselves on the DPs, where maybe in the past a player may not want to be as physical in that moment. You can just sense the team spirit, the trust, is elevated and that's important.”
The X’s and O’s have been less of a focus, but that foundation too is being laid.
“The other side is the tactical excellence piece – there's more of that to come, but the players got to see the measures from the intersquad. We kept it as a process. Regardless of what the score was, the team that won would win through process – we had four measures - and it was very, very close,” Herdman outlined. “You start to see them understand some of the concepts, the key performance indicators that provide consistent winning performances. Those measures are being brought back to the principles of play, how we want to evolve as a team – these are the things that are important to us. They're seeing that element of how we measure identity.”
“And on the flip side of that is the physical numbers. Every day that's the most important tracking data,” he transitioned. “We've got them on track to be one of the fittest teams in MLS. I imagine every coach is trying to achieve that with their team. To do that safely, as well as hit some of the key thresholds, are some of the key things we are measuring.”
“Team spirit on track,” Herdman summed up.
“Tactical excellence is phase two where I get to really start working with the players in earnest, but the physical foundation is on track.”
Herdman took some time at the end of last season to familiarize himself with the new surroundings, but in preseason, with a clean slate, there is room to update impressions.
“There's always players that surprise you – that they've been able to leave a little bit of the past behind them and step in as if it is a fresh start,” he began. “Shane O’Neill has certainly stood out in that regard. He's really embraced the approach, a leadership role, and it's rubbing off onto his game.”
“What I've seen from him is a commitment to play, a commitment to bring a new level of aggression to his performance in that wide centre-back role. He'd be the one that really jumps off the page,” Herdman continued. “Players like Aimé [Mabika] are improving – you're seeing those growth areas every session, you start to see the passes that we're looking for – and players like Ayo Akinola have come in fitter than I've ever seen them and are really putting a big shift in.”
“Every week you start to see little shifts from players as they become more familiar with the tactics. There's always players that are in this little dip as they're trying to learn something new and haven't [thrown] that knockout punch yet to say, ‘I’m here,’” he balanced. “We've got to give them time, but the time will run out and run out pretty quickly through these last three days.”
“We've got some decisions to make. I want to make sure that squad going into phase two is a tighter group that have the competency, the commitment, and that ability to take this thing to the next level,” Herdman stressed. “That's the assessment we're conducting now; there are some players that are putting their hand up really high for it.”
Aside from the additions of Honduran international Deybi Flores and 2024 MLS SuperDraft first-overall pick Tyrese Spicer, Toronto have been quiet on the player movement front.
Herdman expects that to change as the season draws closer.
“There's good work going on behind the scenes. The front office have got some players they’re talking to, there’s some plans that are underway,” he confirmed. “In the transfer period one player might look likely and then become unlikely for a period. One thing I'm clear on is going into phase two, that Santa Barbara phase as we play Columbus, LAFC, Real Salt Lake that we really want to have some new additions.”
“This period I've been pretty comfortable being able to assess the group that we have, to understand where the gaps are, and to see which players are responding to the way that we want to play. The front office will have a real strong assessment after the Nashville game, given that we've spent a good two-and-a-half weeks together,” Herdman laid out. “It's a two-pronged process: we're assessing the group, getting to feel all the players in a competitive setting, but at the same time the front office are working hard with us to keep track of those targets.”
“If we can bring anyone in by the end of the European transfer window we will,” he said.
“And if we don't, we'll aim to have new bodies in as we progress through phase two.”
Alongside the on-field work in Florida, the side has been using this time to come together as a group.
“They’ve had a couple of team nights,” confirmed Herdman, in response to a question about a team bowling session. “They had a nice dinner in Miami, they all went out on the day off, there was a lot of singing going on from what I heard.”
“And the bowling, apparently there's a few little kingpins in there that we weren't aware of either. I think Latif Blessing was a bit of a surprise there with some dancing,” he added. “The boys have worked hard. We’ve given them some space to unite and connect and play hard a bit.”
Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, members of that leadership group alongside TFC captain Jonathan Osorio, O’Neill, and Sean Johnson, have been in the middle of that.
“Lorenzo and Federico have worked hard behind the scenes to keep the mood high and then bring the intensity and competitiveness,” sketched Herdman. “They bring their personalities every day. We played a lovely small-sided game competition and it was almost like the World Cup Final. You can feel that sort of intensity there.”
“There’s those arguments, scuffles – that's what we want in those moments,” he continued. “There's a good competitive vibe in the environment at the moment and with the quality that they have, they can just raise the level up. We’ve seen what Lorenzo can do when the competition dials up – it’s special to watch.”
It seems like just yesterday that players were reporting back to the BMO Training Ground, bracing for the start of preseason. Now the first portion is nearly complete and before too long that season opener away to FC Cincinnati on February 25 will be here.
The calendar unfolds quickly in MLS.
Toronto got a fresh glimpse of what lies ahead this week with the draw for the group stage of the 2024 Leagues Cup. TFC were drawn into Group East 6 alongside Mexican club CF Pachuca and the New York Red Bulls.
The competition kicks off on July 26 and will run through August 25. Details of the schedule will be released later, but the knowledge alone of facing two tasty opponents like that later in the season is always appetizing.
“It’s another trophy,” said Herdman about the news. “Another trophy to be able to chase. It gives you a chance to breathe in the middle of the season, to reset, remotivate players in a different setting.”
“I enjoyed it last year,” he continued. “I enjoyed watching that competition, seeing the different styles of play, the approach of the Mexican teams, and getting that opportunity to shift gears away from the grind of what MLS will be.”
“For us to get two matches against two good opponents is what we would have hoped for,” Herdman relished. “And, hopefully, we get to play one of them games in Toronto.”