TORONTO – Struggle is a powerful teacher.
One can learn more from defeat than from victory; success blinds what failure lays bare. It is there that vulnerabilities and missteps are exposed. Not that anyone enjoys the process.
The 2018 season was such an experience for Toronto FC.
But with their opening opponent in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League, Panamanian side CA Independiente de La Chorrera, now set for February, the emphasis is on applying that knowledge to the plans for the season ahead.
“We learned a lot about what we're going to have to deal with,” said Greg Vanney at the end of season media press conference. “How to approach the offseason in a better way; how to approach the preseason in a better way.”
That 'better way' encompasses three categories – maximizing fitness and durability, adapting preseason to that end, and broadening the approach – each leading into the next.
“The first thing is that guys have to work in the offseason,” stressed Michael Bradley. “Have to find the balance between recovering, mentally and physically, making sure that you're able to reset, but also [that] you come back in here fit, strong, ready to go, so that from the first day there is a base and we're able to go at it from there.”
That is the starting point.
“We'll talk to each guy about what their offseason needs to look like to make sure they're prepared for what we will encounter,” said Vanney. “Last year we did a lot of travel in preseason, to prepare the guys for what to expect in [Concacaf]. We'll take a lot of that travel out. We went to Mexico in order to get them Mexican opponents and altitude, but when you go to 5000 feet, the intensity at which you can train comes down because you're overloaded so fast. We'll keep our guys at sea level; push them from an intensity and durability standpoint.
“Now the group knows what they're getting into.”
In 2018, Toronto's first time in Concacaf since 2012-13, the emphasis was on exposing the side to the particularities of regional play as they braced for the unknown. This time around, anticipating the physical toll the early, heavy start entails becomes the aim.
“Last year we focused on Champions League, competing off the bat in that competition,” outlined Tim Bezbatchenko. “What that didn't factor in was the ability to be durable during through the 34 games of the regular season. This year we're going to look at the preseason, make sure it does both. Around the world, teams do both.”
“How can we compete in multiple competitions and contend?” posited the General Manager. “We did two of the three – Champions League and Canadian Championship – we missed on the third.”
Toronto will also look at squad depth and rotation, as well as scheduling, as factors to be considered in their plans.
“It takes, not just 11 players, but 16-to-18 to compete in multiple competitions,” said Bezbatchenko. “It's looking at our schedule, working with the league to the extent we can influence. It's looking at travel, looking at how to be mentally strong in a season where you are going to play 45-plus games.”
Intensity is a foregone conclusion in the Champions League. Maintaining that same level over the course of a gruelling season of league play will be the aim in 2019.
“Experience can only help,” said Eriq Zavaleta. “Knowing you're going to have meaningful games right away, which we did a good job of handling this year. But while we want to put a lot of chips in that basket, you can't put them all in. We're going to do a better job managing the competitions, not allowing ourselves to get off to slow start [in the league]. Really prioritizing MLS games hard.”
Having seen the costs, Toronto now knows what to expect.
“Concacaf was difficult,” admitted Victor Vazquez. “We have to go for it like we did last year, but also we have to take care more about the [league]. We have to be ready for all of it.”
The 2018 Champions League saw TFC beat the Colorado Rapids in the Round of 16, before running a gauntlet of Mexican giants – Tigres UANL and Club America – en route to the final against Chivas Guadalajara. The memories, now months later, are still vivid.
Aside from how it ended, in a dreaded penalty shootout, “the whole experience was great,” according to Jonathan Osorio.
“To get that under us, to feel how it is to play in Mexico,” continued Osorio. “A lot of us had never experienced that before. But now, we've had a taste; we'll be more prepared for next year.”