Monday afternoon at the BMO Training Ground, ahead of the opening leg of their 2018 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against Tigres UANL, was all business, precious little time to chat.
The 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC on Saturday was an inauspicious start to the 2018 MLS regular season, but focus has already shifted towards the next challenge, the next match: Wednesday against Tigres at BMO Field (8 pm ET; TSN2 in Canada | UDN, go90.com).
“They've been very successful the last few years, domestically and internationally,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio. “It's going to be a good test for us, to see where we stand. Everybody is looking forward to it; excited to see how we do against Tigres.”
Added defender Nick Hagglund, in his trademark understated way: “They're pretty good.”
2018 has started quickly for the defending MLS Cup champions. A two-legged series with the Colorado Rapids in the CCL Round of 16 gave way to the opening day defeat against Columbus.
For their third match in little more than a week, TFC will square off against the reigning Liga MX Champions: Tigres won the 2017 Apertura on December 10, a day after Toronto won the 2017 MLS Cup. A true clash of champions.
With such an encounter on the horizon, it was some surprise to see Greg Vanney trot out a largely first-choice eleven that included Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez against Columbus on the weekend, whereas other MLS clubs with Champions League aspirations rested starters.
“I don't think we have the luxury,” explained Vanney. “If you have any desire to win this tournament, and you are an MLS team, you need every minute to get your guys on the field and in sync with each other.”
“Going to Mexico, playing a team who has played ten-to-twelve games, are already sharp and have a lot of things worked out,” continued Vanney. “We can't rest guys right now. Guys have to get through this. Our guys are very aware of that.”
Vanney wants observers to trust the process.
“Each game is important for gaining information about our group as we go into the Tigres series,” stated Vanney. “We were able to get Ager [Aketxe] out there, never played in MLS; never played with Greg [van der Wiel]. There's a relationship we've got to test before we move into a knockout series.”
“That's what all of these games are for,” added Vanney. “That's the process. We've got to see what everybody is going to give us, how these partnerships will look.”
That strategy did leave one concern, as Vazquez was forced off in the second half on Saturday through injury.
“He was having a bit of a nerve issue,” detailed Vanney. “Lower back, creates a sensation in his legs that tighten up. He's had it before, something we're able to treat and get through quickly. Now we start treatment, see if we can turn him around for the next one.”
Vazquez, who was pivotal to Toronto's success last season, was undoubtedly looking forward to taking centerstage in front of Mexican eyes, having endured a difficult spell at Cruz Azul before joining TFC.
“I spoke to him quickly after, I don't think he thinks it's too bad,” relayed Bradley. “Over the next day or two, he's got to get the right treatment, put himself in position to be ready to play on Wednesday. We're a better team if he's on the field.”
Vazquez or no, Toronto FC are eager for the fun to begin.
“We're getting our rhythm,” said Osorio. “We had a good preseason; we're prepared. We spent some time in Mexico that went really well. Nothing [is] going to catch us off guard. We'll be ready.”
Only the most brief glimpse of Toronto's approach emerged.
“We have to start aggressive,” urged van der Wiel. “Don't let them play and play our game when we have the ball.”
“We have so much quality in this team,” noted the Dutchman, who made his debut against Columbus. “We're playing at home; we have to forget about Saturday and start aggressive.”