After less than a week in town, the scene shifted to Florida for the second phase of Toronto FC’s preseason preparation.
Having been welcomed back to town by the most substantial snowfall of the winter, hardly ideal conditions to stretch the legs, the team departed on Thursday for a week of intense week of double-session days at the Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate.
They will return to town this Wednesday before heading out west a week later for the final phase and a series of friendlies leading into the season opener.
Greg Vanney likes what he sees thus far.
“From a mentality standpoint, arriving in the right weight, the right body fat, and getting on the field, everybody is in a great position,” said the TFC coach last week. “It looks like a group that’s really here to get going.”
This initial portion is primarily about laying the physical foundation for the gruelling nine-month campaign that lays ahead.
“Get our soccer fitness, that’s the most important thing in this first stage, to build up our endurance, our durability for what is always a long season,” explained Vanney. “We’re starting to really add in the competition side of things, get guys sharp technically, get their minds thinking faster, making decisions quicker.”
“And we’re starting to build in some of our game model: how we want to play in different scenarios,” he detailed. “It wasn’t that long ago that we played a game so some of that is still fresh. We’ve started that process and I’m really pleased with first few days. Everybody is working hard, pushing each other, encouraging each other. These days aren’t always the funnest, but these guys are embracing it. And then when we play they are competing and look pretty sharp. I’m excited with where we’re at and we’ll continue to challenge them.”
For the first time since 2017, TFC will not participate in the Concacaf Champions League, which always rushes preparations for the season ahead. It is a bitter luxury.
“It gives us time to work out various phases of the games, to get everybody connected, and to really work on individual players within our team concepts,” weighed Vanney. “More time to to break it down and work on a micro level to build into the season.”
On February 5, after a week back home, the club will depart for the next phase in California, more specifically the University of California, Irvine, as they have the past few seasons.
Days later, February 8, they are set to play the first of five scheduled preseason matches against the Colorado Rapids.
Matches against LAFC, the LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire FC, and the Rapids again follow in quick succession, leading into the season opener against the San Jose Earthquakes on February 29. Toronto will remain in California for the entire duration.
That was part of the reason for the excursion to Florida in this first stage: break the preseason monotony into distinct phases.
“To spend a lot of time in Los Angeles means a lot of time away,” said Vanney. “We have to get out of the environment [in Toronto] just to get outside. Florida is a little bit closer and it's a wonderful setup at the Omni: just walk out to the fields and walk back, which is great, especially for the first phase of things.”
“But the games we want to play and an environment that we've, over the years, grown really accustomed to is out in LA,” he continued. “And it just so happens our first game is in San Jose which will be which is on that side of the country. It all kind of worked out.”
With 24 players returning from last season’s roster, a lot of the tactical groundwork has already been laid.
“There's a benefit to having this continuity,” began Vanney. “It reminds me a little bit of 2016 to 2017, a little bit of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, where it wasn't that long ago that we played in some big games and so our guys understand how we want to play and what we're trying to do.”
“We can really get to focusing on individual players improving and being sharper within the collective,” he continued. “The big details are pretty clear – and we'll continue to build on those, but then we can get into the smaller details. There's a lot of things as again as I watch back – from games in the season, the final, to other things – some details that I'd love to get into more. We're in a good position to do that.”
Not just the continuity, but that, aside from Michael Bradley who continues to recover from ankle surgery and any forthcoming additions, the group is largely intact from the start.
“It’s the first time since I’ve been here we start a preseason with everybody for the most part and we can start to build in roles and expectations right from the start,” laid out Vanney. “It’s nice. Relationships can develop right from the start, people start to bond together. All kinds of good things can happen when the group is together. We see that going on right now. I’m pleased with where this group is at, they’re hungry and working.”
The returning 24 have been joined by the three homegrown players added last week – Rocco Romeo, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, and Jayden Nelson – all already familiar with first team training sessions.
That the preseason matches are against MLS teams will provide the youngsters a chance to acclimate to this new level of play and help determine what kind of role they may play this season.
“We have three/four games that are actually in a stadium environment against MLS teams,” highlighted Vanney about going to the LA-area. “That gives you more a feel of a real game and not just a preseason game that's played out on a park field somewhere or a training ground.”
“So, between that and the build into the season there's real opportunity for us to see what everybody's going to bring and how each player is going to help to add their individual piece to our collective group.”