TORONTO – The telltale signs that spring is in the air have begun to emerge.
The temperature has pushed above freezing, the banks of darkened snow have started their slow process of receding, and, most pertinent to this discussion, Toronto FC has their home opener.
The New England Revolution come to town on Sunday for the first home match of the 2019 MLS regular season.
In honour of the occasion, continuing the theme, TFC were able to exit the bubble at the BMO Training Ground on Friday, taking their first outdoor session of the season.
“It was good, really good. Everybody was excited,” smiled Jozy Altidore after training. “It sucks to be in that bubble. It's better on the body to get outside. Football is supposed to be played outside.”
In the weeks since Toronto opened their season with a 3-1 win in Philadelphia against the Union, Greg Vanney and his staff have focused on the group taking the steps forward they need to prepare for a long, gruelling season.
Familiar shoots have been in evidence.
“Whether you're in the starting XI or not, the guys are playing for each other; they enjoy each other. It's been a great vibe. The foundation for something that can be special,” said Vanney of the mood in the group. “Now you continue to grow as a team, grow tactically, and execute throughout the course of the season how you need to. In our league, where the margins are fine, team chemistry pushes the bar in your favour just a little bit more.”
“The mentality has been good,” added Vanney, though the side is itching. “The guys want to play games.”
And that this one will be at BMO Field only adds to the anticipation.
“We're excited to get back at home,” said Justin Morrow. “It's been a while now with the bye week and the away game. We can't wait.”
To add to the anticipation, there is a possibility that Altidore, who has yet to feature this season, could see some action.
“100% no, it's going to take time. Match fitness I'm behind,” admitted Altidore of his recovery process from offseason surgery. “But in terms of being eligible, I feel really good. I'm excited, I want to get on the field and score at BMO.”
“This is what I live for,” continued the striker, who was re-signed to a long-term contract at the end of February. “A big reason to stay was I love playing for these fans. Hopefully I can start or come off the bench and have an effect on the game.”
Standing in their way are the Revolution, though TFC enter the match primarily focused on themselves.
“We go in with a mindset on who we are and who we want to be. That's the first thing,” stressed Vanney. “The second is the opposition, their strengths and weaknesses.”
“We're committed to our model, how we want to play, but willing to be pragmatic at times... to the extent that we need to be,” continued Vanney. “They're a team that wants to press high. Our expectation is they'll try to be aggressive. We have to be aware, but take advantage of it. Ultimately we have a goal to be a good defending team this year; that's where we'll start from.”
Entering their second season under former US international goalkeeper Brad Friedel, New England are not unfamiliar.
“They're not totally different from the past, under Brad, a few different faces” said Vanney. “In terms of how they want to approach the game, how aggressive they're trying to be to create the situations that they're looking for.”
Their attacking threats: Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury, Cristian Penilla, and Diego Fagundez are all familiar, known quantities in MLS.
“They're a unique and difficult team to play against: athletic, big, and strong,” added Vanney. “They put a lot of pressure on you.”
“We have to be smart, calculated about the passes we make. Anytime there is a pressing team there are certain passes that they're looking for to initiate and start pressing,” continued Vanney. “We have to choose the right moments to get behind them and back them up. And take advantage of the opportunities we get.”
New England are winless through two matches having lost 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC on the weekend after opening their campaign with a 1-1 draw away to FC Dallas.
In the head-to-head series between the clubs, the home side has won the last six matches, three apiece, most recently a 4-1 TFC win last September.
Though familiar, Friedel did make a few key additions in the offseason, one being Spanish attacking midfielder, Carles Gil, who arrived from Deportivo La Coruna.
“A lefty, crafty with his left-foot, he will float around field and try to find the ball,” detailed Vanney. “He tends to drift to their right side, so he can put the ball on his left-foot and move towards the middle.”
“A crafty passer, good at understanding how to manipulate numbers: if you give him too much space, he can put things on goal. He's the type of playmaker they want to get on the ball as much as possible,” warned Vanney. “With the runners they have around him, you've got to make sure he's not the one picking the passes. You get Bunbury, Penilla, Agudelo running – they're depth runners – with a guy like him on the ball they can expose you.”
Edgar Castillo arrived from the Colorado Rapids to bolster a back-line led by English defender Michael Mancienne, who holds down the middle of the back-four with one of Antonio Delamea or Jalil Anibaba. Scott Caldwell and Wilfred Zahibo sit in front as a shield and to facilitate the attacks from deep.
For Altidore, who TFC play this weekend doesn't matter.
“This early in the season it's about setting the right message,” said Altidore. “We know these teams. New England hasn't changed much. They're a team that has some talented players that can hurt you if you're not careful: Agudelo is a good striker, can be dangerous; Bunbury as well.”
“It's our home opener, we've had a lot of things happen,” continued Altidore. “It's a good message – to the fans, to ourselves – that [BMO Field] is going to be a fortress again. That's has to be the idea.”