TORONTO – And so it begins.
Toronto FC head to Talen Energy Stadium to face the Philadelphia Union in what will be the first of 10 matches to kick off the 2019 MLS regular season on Saturday afternoon.
Though coach Jim Curtin is still in place, the Union have gone through a significant change: sporting director Earnie Stewart departed for the U.S. National Team midstream last season and was replaced by Ernst Tanner from Austrian side, Red Bull Salzburg. Meanwhile, mainstay striker C.J. Sapong and midfielder Bořek Dočkal have both departed from the club.
“With Earnie Stewart as sporting director before, he had a very clear vision of what he was looking for,” said Greg Vanney on Thursday. “They were very much a 4-2-3-1 team that worked with the ball a lot more than defensively. They've done a 180.”
“Their new sporting director is more about pressing. They're in more of a diamond shape, 4-3-1-2, really looking to create turnovers through defensive work,” detailed Vanney. “They are a hard-working group who is committed to doing the running that it takes to be a good pressing team.”
The Union were bolstered in the offseason with a series of arrivals: Brazilian forward Sergio Santos joined from Chilean side Audax Italiano; defender Aurelien Collin brings some veteran bite to the back-line; continuing a trend, some more homegrowns were added to the mix – Brenden Aaronson is one to keep an eye on, while Mexican midfielder Marco Fabian arrived from German side Eintracht Frankfurt.
“It's a good team, we know that,” said Michael Bradley. “In large part, the same group of players that they've had, what changes is their approach.”
“They'll be a team that plays with two strikers, with more of a diamond in the midfield. They're going to want to be aggressive in how they press,” forecast Bradley. “Tanner has talked about how he believes in aggressive transition football. When you watch them in preseason, what they're trying to do with that part is clear to see.”
“So we'll go there, understanding that it's their home opener, they'll come out with energy and excitement,” added Bradley. “Combined with what we think will be their approach, it'll mean we have to be ready, have to understand what the game will be about.”
It is in Bradley's midfield where the contest for dominance will begin.
“They have some good athleticism and size, and their midfielders are all very comfortable on the ball,” remarked Vanney. “[Haris] Medunjanin, who plays as a defensive midfielder, is a spectacular passer, very good with time on the ball. He can really sort things out. To Ilsinho, to [Alejandro] Bedoya, and Fabian.”
“It will be a tough test,” said Vanney. “We've watched what they've done through the preseason; we'll prepare in the ways that will give us the best shot to defend, shutdown what they have and create opportunities.”
TFC's season begins with a trio of key contests in the Eastern Conference.
After Philadelphia, Toronto will then have a bye week ahead of the home opener on March 17 against the New England Revolution and end the month on March 29, at BMO Field once more, against NYCFC.
In a new year, TFC knows that nothing is guaranteed.
“Everybody starts the season with the same goal,” reminded Bradley. “How things play themselves out over ten months, 34 games, that determines who the best teams are. At the beginning, we all understand that the second part of last year wasn't good enough and it is on us to make sure it was ultimately nothing more than a blip on the radar.”
Over the long slog that is the MLS season, quality, skill, endurance, and depth will all be tested. In rising to that challenge, Toronto will lean on the character of what Vanney described as a “no nonsense, get-to-work group of guys, who are eager to learn.”
“They push each other, communicate with one another. There is a real connection to each other,” continued Vanney. “They see this year as a real challenge after last year. They see how special this club is and want to be successful.”
“I see a great camaraderie,” added Vanney. “We have good pieces, need to continue to add to those pieces, in terms of both quality and depth, so that we can continue to grow as a team. We also have some exciting young players who are coming along. That's a big part of the vision of this club as we move forward: how they will integrate, be successful and useful for us.”
Bradley too saw that resolve when he rejoined the group after the U.S. National Team's January camp.
“When I came back, it was easy to see that the group was excited by the fact there had been some clarity given,” said Bradley. “There is a part at the beginning where you're still putting things together a little bit. Right now, the mentality is very good, guys are excited and motivated to make sure that we put things right this year.
“Over the next few weeks, the expectation is there will be a few new faces coming in,” added Bradley. “The new players come in with their own energy, bring a new impulse, fresh blood to the group. [It's all] coming together in a good way.”
The Champions League run did not go as hoped, but that is now in the past. There are more games to be played; the next goal is ahead.
“We were all disappointed there is no Champions League run again this year, but there is no sense in crying about that,” said Bradley. “It's about the season, about 34 games, about stepping onto the field each and every [match] with the mentality, the spirit, with a clear idea of what we want to be about, how we want to play our football and at the end we'll see where that leaves us.”
“This group has always felt when we're able to do that, week in and week out, we like our chances,” concluded the captain. “Very excited to get the regular part of the season going now; everybody is ready for a big year.”