The 2020 MLS regular season begins on Saturday.
Toronto FC have already spent nearly the past month in California – Los Angeles to be exact, preparing for the upcoming campaign. For the curtain raiser, however, the scene shifts to Northern California, where they will face the San Jose Earthquakes.
After weeks of fitness building and preseason matches, everyone is ready for the first match.
“We're excited,” said Jonathan Osorio, speaking ahead of the final warm-up game against the Colorado Rapids, one that was cut short by inclement weather. “It's crazy how fast it's come, but at the same time how long preseason is. We're all anxious to get started.”
“We will be ready,” continued Osorio. “We know that the time is coming and it's coming fast. We're taking advantage of every day to get better and to go into that first game as sharp as possible.”
Greg Vanney is pleased with where his side is positioned heading into the season.
“Physically we're in a good position. A lot of guys are returning, so we picked up where we left off. We're good, but none of it really means anything until the season starts,” assessed the coach. “Always the first few games are getting yourself really going and into it.”
“We've got a good mix of guys, they get along great, work hard for each other, have good chemistry on the field,” he listed. “We're comfortable with that and now we get the league started.”
It has been a quiet offseason for TFC.
Toronto have kept roster turnover to a minimum, signing four young players – three homegrown (Rocco Romeo, Jayden Nelson, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty) and one SuperDraft pick (Ifunanyachi Achara) – as well as experienced Argentine winger Pablo Piatti, who will not be available in San Jose, as a designated player.
They did their work throughout 2019 with midseason additions of Alejandro Pozuelo, Omar Gonzalez, Erickson Gallardo, and Jacob Shaffelburg.
“Poz will come off of some rest, he's had a full season to integrate with the group. Omar now starts with the group; Erickson,” listed Vanney. “We didn't do a lot in this offseason, but [those] that came midseason are still relatively new to the picture.”
Having finished the season on a ten-game unbeaten run before reaching the MLS Cup Final with gritty away wins against NYCFC and Atlanta United FC having dispatched D.C. United with a flurry of goals in added time in the first round of the playoffs, Vanney likes the direction in which his side is trending.
“We lost two games all of the second half,” he recalled. “Now is a chance to continue to grow as a group, continue to evolve.”
“Ultimately our goal is consistency. We want to be consistent throughout the season,” Vanney emphasized. “We're probably not going to be on top form Game One, but we don't want any dips, we want to keep building. And if we happen to lose a game, we bounce back; spin some runs where we win multiple games in a row.”
“Just consistency,” he demanded. “Consistency of performance, consistency of outcome, [some] of the things that we're looking for this year.”
With a slow build to the campaign, TFC will play one game a week for the next month before a FIFA International break at the end of March. April will begin at a similar pace, but ramp up with six games that month leading into a hectic May where seven games are scheduled leading into the June FIFA break – the half-way point for their season.
“First four or five weeks, we're in a one-game-a-week set-up, which is nice,” remarked Vanney. “That gives everybody a chance to build into the season before we get into playing three games a week or five in two weeks.”
Up first is the unique challenge of San Jose and Matias Almeyda’s systemic approach.
In his second season in charge of the Earthquakes, Almeyda will be looking to build on the success the side had through the first half of last year. They faltered at the end, missing out on the playoffs by four points with a run of six-straight losses to close 2019, but were one of the more intriguing developments in MLS.
Vanney expects their efforts to be redouble this time around.
“The players have gotten more comfortable with his expectations,” forecast the TFC coach. “First there was the buy-in that he needed [from] players. Second was the comfort level and understanding how they're going to handle situations. His group needed to evolve and over the course of last year and this they’re starting to. He's been able to evaluate the league for one year, so as a group, they'll probably take a step forward.”
Toronto lost the only meeting between the two clubs last season, 2-1 at BMO Field in May when Chris Wondolowski broke free of marking to score twice after Richie Laryea had put his side ahead in the first half.
Wondolowski lead the team in scoring again last year with 15 goals, but the likes of Vako (eight goals, five assists), Magnus Eriksson (six and ten), and Cristian Espinoza (two and 13) signalled a new age in Earthquakes history.
While there is some variation, the core of a man-marking system is that each player is assigned an opponent and tasked with following him all over the field, positional considerations go out the window. It can get hectic real fast.
It takes a different level of focus and concentration for it to work. And when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong.
It takes a certain kind of player.
“A lot of it is going to come down to mentality,” explained Vanney of finding success in such a radical style. “Playing the way they play, it's a mentality game, especially on the defensive side: the mentality to have to chase somebody, to track somebody, to be really engaged in the one-on-one duels.”
“Then when they have the ball they actually want to play, they try to open up,” added Vanney. “There's a unique balance there that they're trying to strike.”
San Jose too had a pretty quiet offseason, adding a trio of young players – two homegrown and one from the draft – but Almeyda was able to source one of those ‘certain’ players, defender Oswaldo Alanis, on loan from Chivas de Guadalajara, where both coach and player lifted the Concacaf Champions League trophy in 2018 with a shootout win over TFC.
“A guy who, from Day One, understands exactly what they're trying to do,” said Vanney of the Mexican centre-back.
Added to the mix is that San Jose played much of their preseason behind closed doors, limiting chances to scouting recent developments.
“It will be challenging,” admitted Vanney. “We won't have so much information.”
“It's always interesting to start the year with a team that plays such clear, defined, but unique, style,” he continued. “And we want to prepare for an entire season, we don't want to just prepare for one game. They won’t change things too much. That's the way he plays; they'll try to just get better at what they're trying to do.”
The MLS season is a long and gruelling one. A nearly ten-month long campaign to lift the trophy begins on Saturday. There will be many twists and turns.
But everyone remembers what happened when TFC entered the 2017 season off the back of an MLS Cup Final defeat at the hands of Seattle Sounders FC.
“It’s a similar feeling,” allowed Osorio. “You can tell in the way that we train, the way guys are locked in and focused. We don't want to compare this year to the 2017 season because that season may not ever be replicated, by any team.”
“Saying that, the objective is the same: to avenge a loss in MLS Cup,” levelled the midfielder. “We want to get back there; we feel we can. The Supporters’ Shield is our first objective and that sets us up pretty well for fighting for that final.”