The work of preseason continues in California for Toronto FC.

TFC will play their third match on Wednesday when they face Real Salt Lake in Santa Barbara.

Unlike the previous outings, which featured some of the flexibility preseason allows, this one will be a straight 90-minute match.

“It’s step three in that game space,” said John Herdman on Tuesday afternoon. “The turnaround is [short], so we'll be monitoring the squads and the minutes of each squad as well. There will be a group of players that will play 60 minutes and there will be a group that will play around 30 minutes, based on their loading from the Columbus game.”

“There we pushed the core group right through to around the 74th minute and that should set them up going into LAFC,” he recounted. “One lineup will be the strongest lineup at this stage and then the other lineup will be about assessment, to show they’ve got the mentality to take a step forward from where they were last season. It’s an important outing for the players.”

Toronto has had a chance to watch Salt Lake already this year: a 2-1 loss to Danish side Brøndby IF earlier this month.

“We got a chance to see RSL experimenting with some of their back three builds,” Herdman detailed. “A bit different, they're normally a 4-4-2, 4-2-4 type team, so to see them experimenting is good. We know what the options might be, tactically what we're going to have to deal with.”

TFC will then round out their preseason with a clash against LAFC on Saturday.

Herdman is pleased with what he has seen from his side through these weeks of preseason.

“There's a lot of good work going on down here in Santa Barbara,” he said. “For the last game Columbus had asked not to release any score lines or lineups and that was one of the provisos of being to play against the champions.”

“It was important to get that game. [It] was a great experience for our lads,” Herdman continued. “We played a 90-minute match and then 30 minutes at the end of that 90. We were able to play our strongest lineup against what we believed was their strongest lineup.”

“Both teams changed their lineups at around the 70-minute mark. I was proud of the group that came in for that last 20 minutes, we were able to keep a clean-sheet. It was a really good outing from our players to deal with the quality in Cucho, [Diego] Rossi, and those types of players,” Herdman underlined. “And then the last 30 minutes we had a very experimental lineup out, had a few TFC II players in it, and Columbus were able to dominate the scoreline in that."

"Real Salt Lake will be another good test.”

Where the focus of the first phase of preseason was largely about fitness, in this second phase the tactical identity of the side, building that tactical cohesion, has taken centre stage.

“It comes alive in the games. We do all the work off the pitch, but it's what can we transfer into the match given the limited context that we've had so far,” laid out Herdman of that identity formulation. “The transfer has been good. We've operated as an adaptable team. We’re operating out of a back five and that builds in a 3-4-3 – it's an adaptable back five, it's an adaptable 3-4-3 as well.”


“There's been layers to it with the preseason. We held more of a medium block against Columbus and denied access to their central players, which was really good to see because it takes a lot of discipline to stay that compact,” he continued. “And in the build-up we've been adapting to being able to use the DPs in different positions, whether it's [Federico] Bernardeschi playing more inside or giving him absolute commitment to play in the wide areas.”

“We want to be the most aggressive, organized, and adaptable team in MLS,”

Herdman stated. “Columbus were that last year and that test against them was a good yardstick for us to firstly see, defensively, how compact we could be against their quality, and then from an attacking perspective, could we really threaten, with the players that we had and not having [Lorenzo] Insigne in the lineup.”

“The players took a lot of confidence from that performance,” he added. “Some of the work you've seen in BMO Field from the Canadian Men's National Team over the years and a similar four moment identity is starting to evolve here.”

Those four moments John refers to carry different labels from time to time, but come down to: with the ball, without the ball, attacking transition, and defensive transition.

The few glimpses of action for those stuck in Toronto have been some of those attacking moments: goals from Insigne and Bernardeschi against Nashville and ones from Ayo Akinola and Alonso Coello against Columbus.

“There's a lot of clarity,” said Herdman of what he’s seeing of the side’s attacking potential. “A lot of it's coming from offensive solidarity. The team’s commitment to being a tighter unit has given us a clearer picture in the transition, but also there's a quicker shift into your attacking structure from the starting position of how we're defending and the understanding of their roles.”

“We've been able to get players to take standards to the next level,” he continued.

“I’ve seen some improvements in players, the commitment to make those runs behind, those diagonal runs from wing-backs, the timing of those we’ve put a lot of attention to.”

“The competition is high here. Akinola knows he’s only going to get one or two chances to prove himself. He's got a [Deandre] Kerr breathing down his neck, [Adama] Diomande, Prince Owusu, these players are fighting for their own spots, so the razor’s edge is sharp,” Herdman added. “We’ve seen that response from players. When you get that, all of a sudden for the DPs there's more options and when you give those players more options with their ability, they can find passes that weren’t there as frequently in previous times. We've seen an uptick in the attacking movement, the intensity of our attacking play, which then starts to unlock Bernardeschi, [Jonathan] Osorio, Insigne with their attacking quality as well.”


Fitness, tactical cohesion, competition, and intensity, some of the pillars that set a team up for the long season ahead. 

The cultural element as well continues to be evolved. 

As an environment, Santa Barbara itself required little window dressing to suit the club’s purposes

“The beach. Just the beach and the water in California, the life,” replied Herdman of how the player’s environment has changed for this second phase. “There's a way of living here. Just getting that ecotherapy for the players, as Robyn Gayle calls it, has been a big shift.”

As the season approaches, the seriousness of the task at hand comes to a fine point.

“The players will start to work on the code of the shirt,” added Herdman. “It's something I've always done at every team I’ve been, where we really open up the shirt, what it means to people, and then we start to set the code, which are those aspirational, non-negotiables, those bright lines for those that wear it.”

“That's a step that will be taken with the players in this phase. We keep that late in the phase, once I'm clear which men have earned the right to wear it. That's the rite of passage to this jersey,” he closed. “It’s got to be at the same level that we've set at the Canadian Men's National Team or Women's National Team, a real respect for the opportunity to represent this city and this big club.”