LA CHORRERA, Panama – After 115 days, the longest offseason in recent memory is finally set to come to a close.
The 2019 Concacaf Champions League gets underway for Toronto FC on Tuesday night with the first leg of their Round of 16 series against Panamanian side CA Independiente de la Chorrera at Estadio Agustín Muquita Sánchez.
Having spent much of preseason in California, Toronto returned home for a few days before heading back south to Central America ahead of the clash with Independiente.
“The guys are in a good spot,” said Greg Vanney on Friday. “Playing down in Central America always has its challenges. Sometimes the opposition is just one and the conditions and different things become another. For us, it's to be really intelligent about how we play this first leg and set ourselves up to come back and finish the series at our place.”
Independiente, though newcomers to the Champions League, will be a challenging opponent.
“Every team in this competition is a seriously threat,” cautioned Vanney during the pre-match press conference on Monday afternoon. “They're going to be very comfortable playing here in their home stadium, on their home field, and in front of their fans.”
“We've seen some of their games recently, have a decent understanding of what their strengths are,” continued Vanney. “We have to see if we can manage those, turn the game in our [vision of it] and play a little bit. We're going to approach the game with the right mentality, take care of their threats, and try to control the ball as much as we can.”
Managing that, while also rising to the level required in a proper match after a series of preseason friendlies will be vital.
“Preseason matches never have the same intensity as the first match in a knockout competition,” admitted Vanney. “We have a vision for how we want to play this year. We will attempt to do that here. We're not going to change anything because we're here. We're going to play the way we have set ourselves up to play: hard.”
“We know we've got to raise our intensity,” added Vanney. “That is something this group has experienced and will answer. We're looking forward to getting the season going. It's been a long offseason and a long preseason. We're excited to get real competition started.”
Last season’s opening round offered a relatively comfortable and familiar, albeit rather cold, series with the Colorado Rapids, allowing TFC to dip their toes into the competition. This time around, Toronto will be greeted with the discomforts of weather, field conditions and gamesmanship that so often are associated with Concacaf clashes.
With that in mind, Vanney had a firm message to his side.
“It's important that we stay together, stay focused on us and the details that we think are important for us to win,” urged Vanney. “Don't get caught up or sidetracked in what I would refer to as 'shenanigans.'”
“There tends to be a lot of emotion or gamesmanship that will try to disrupt the rhythm or throw us off our game,” explained Vanney. “Stay focused on each other, on the task we came to fulfill. It has to be that way, otherwise it's very easy to get caught up in some of the other things that transpire leading up to or through the match. It's important we remain mature; focused on our task.”
The boys are looking forward to it. And to the return leg at a frosty BMO Field next Tuesday.
“I'm excited for this first match: get the season started; my first game in Panama since my first year in the league,” said Jonathan Osorio. “It's going to be a good tournament for us, a good start to the season. Of course, being back at home [next week] will be great: the Panamanians will not like it.”
Having reached the final last season, Toronto hopes to go one step further this time around.
That said, last year is well over; 2019 has only just begun.
“The experience of the last few years, in all ways – positive moments, negative moments – it all comes together,” said Michael Bradley. “We know more about ourselves, about how we want to do things, about the right approaches, the wrong [ones]; things that work, things that haven't worked. You're constantly using experiences that you've had to move forward, make decisions, improve.”
“Nobody is sitting around worried about last year anymore,” added the TFC captain. “For me, that's been the best part of this last week or so: coming into camp, looking around and feeling right away that there was an excitement and a real motivation of the guys to get going; to work and make sure that we use every day in the right way to push ourselves forward.”