Vanney TFC Blazer

TORONTO – As the club prepares to head to Florida for the MLS is Back Tournament it received some tough news.

It was announced on Thursday that Ifunanyachi Achara had suffered a knee injury in training and would be out for the rest of the season having gotten tangled up with a teammate during a training match.

“Very unfortunate news,” said Greg Vanney on a conference call. “First and foremost he’s a great kid, a good person. It's been a pleasure having in our team. He's been great since the day he arrived.”

Having impressed in preseason and scored the game-winner against NYCFC before the season went on hold, Achara will be missed as the side readies to return to action on July 10 against D.C. United.

“He’s a potential starter every day,” said Vanney. “He's done well, scored in almost every single game – preseason and the game that he played against New York. He's shown that he's goal dangerous, he's versatile – could play wide, in that particular [training] game we were playing him up front and he was fantastic as a striker.”

“We were starting to embark on all the different ways we could use [him] in different roles and as we brought him new information he was able to take it on and still continue to do well. In my planning, he was a really important piece of how we would evolve, have some depth, and all that,” continued the coach. “If he wasn't in the lineup, he was going to be one of the first guys to come into a game. He'd pushed himself into that [position]. The team loves him; the guys like playing with him. And for us it means we're a little less deep in some of those rotations, guys will have to step in.”

Achara’s injury comes at a bad time as the group was bracing itself to travel from the comforts of home to the unknowns of Florida.

Having emerged from the hiatus cautiously, progressing from Zoom workout sessions to distanced individual outings at the BMO Training Ground before arriving at the point where full team training was possible over the span of months, they must now step out of that protective bubble and into another being established at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

Change can be difficult at the best of times. Now, even more so.

“The group is human,” explained Vanney of how his players were feeling. “We're very confident with where we are here in Toronto and Ontario, and we’re confident with each other: that each of us, in our group, is doing what we need to do to keep ourselves safe and healthy.”

“We've seen that, with our testing every other day through this entire process: we continue to get negative results, which means everybody is sticking to the plan and doing their role and responsibility for our group, for our families, ourselves, and community,” he reasoned. “The challenge that we all have on the human side is we see what's going on down in the US: people are not taking things seriously, it's completely, in a lot of ways, out of control, and there's very little leadership going on down there outside of the bubble that MLS is trying to create.”

TFC will continue to lean on and depend on each other when they arrive.

“The bubble is only as good as what gets into the bubble and so that's obviously becoming an issue, which is concerning for all of us. Our guys are very aware of it. Are they concerned? Yes. Are they right to be concerned? Yes,” cautioned Vanney. “What is our approach? We know we have to remain within our group and we have to remain responsible to one another and to each other to ourselves, follow the rules and protocols to a tee, control things that we can control and to the best of our ability create a bubble inside of that bubble. What we can control is what we do.”

“Our group is motivated, they want to go down and play the best that they can at this event and try to win, but at the same time they're not oblivious to what's happening,” he continued. “Those conversations are going on within our group about how we can best protect ourselves and what we need to be aware of going down there.”

The lure of the pitch is strong, as always. It is about how to pair that with safety and responsibility that is front of mind.

“One of the places where players feel most comfortable is on the field – they love competing, love playing – it's an escape from, whether it's quarantine and staying at home and all that's going on. So here [in Toronto], knowing the environment, [the guys] come out, they’re focused, they play and they’re in a great mindset. They've, through this whole process, been ready to go down and compete in Florida,” said Vanney. “The challenge that arises is that the most recent set of events down there has obviously caught people's attention. I don't have a great answer to where guys will be once we get down there. We try to be honest and have discussions with the group and talk about it, and make sure that we're all on the same page and we understand that we are a group and we've got to protect each other. But I don't know once people actually get into their room and get inside the setting where their heads are going to be.”

With several teams already in Florida, Vanney and his staff have been monitoring all the emerging reports. Every bit of information gleaned can be put to use.

“The last week has been a little bit interesting,” Vanney noted. “Now that teams are starting to settle in, information from the inside is starting to come out. What before was unexpected, now you start to know.”

“We can plan accordingly,” he continued. “As we gather information we can prepare the best way we can to go down there and have everything we need. For me the biggest thing isn't about the facilities and isn't about the food and all that kind of stuff, it's just the health and safety side, making sure we have all the answers on that.”

“The rest of it as a group and as a club and as a team we are really good at making sure all those other details are taken care of,” he added. “We've had to do so through Champions League in the past. That for us is clockwork; we'll get that done. It's making sure that the things we can’t control down there are under control.”

Given that it will have been some four months since any MLS sides were in action, preparing for any particular opponent becomes somewhat speculative.

“Primarily we’re focusing on ourselves,” said Vanney. “We have scouting reports on the teams that we’re playing from the first two games of the season. Teams haven't changed a whole lot in terms of personnel, so I can't imagine too many teams are doing things completely different. We have some indication, but we've been focusing on ourselves.”

“We do a lot of training to adapt to situations, so if we see something then we will turn into something else – if/then, and all that kind of work – so opposition can bring us different things and we understand as a group how we can adapt into those situations,” he explained. “We’ve been focusing a lot on how we want to manage the heat and the humidity, some of the other challenges down there as well and what do we want these games to look like, in terms of the speed of these games, how much do we want to press, how much do we want to control things, taking care of the ball. Some of that is just our mindset, making sure we're all on the same page, and seeing things the same way.”

As an accommodation to summer being in full swing, some of the kickoff times will be unusual: along with a standard 8 pm start, there are also 9 am and 10:30 pm slots. Toronto will play D.C. on July 10 and the Montreal Impact on July 15 at 8 pm, but face the New England Revolution at 9 am on July 21.

Just another factor to be considered.

“We're trying to understand all the different variables and be prepared for those, whether it’s the unique starting [times], the facilities are a little bit different, in terms of the locker room space and all that. The opposition is just one variable,” Vanney highlighted. “Because our group has been together for a lot of time, a lot of years, and a lot of games, we've got a good sense of who we are and how we will adapt to the situations.”

Overall, the message is to be flexible.

A lesson that was emphasized when plans needed to be changed quickly this week.

The recent hot spell in Toronto has been useful, but in their attempts to condition themselves for that early morning kickoff the club had planned an early morning scrimmage at BMO Field, complete with 5:30 am wake-up calls, but those plans were scuppered by events elsewhere when test results were held up at the border. It was the first time samples were sent to a US-based lab.

“Today we were supposed to have a day off, instead we trained and everything again gets changed and we have to adapt to the circumstances,” said Vanney. “That's an example of: the opposition is just going to be one opponent for us and trying to manage all the other stuff is going to be another part of the challenge.”

“The teams that do the best at staying flexible, adapting, dealing with all of that, and staying together as a group are going to probably have the best event,” forecast the coach. “That's not always the case because the game is the game and things can happen, but that's going to be a big factor in this tournament.”