TORONTO – Had everything gone to schedule, Toronto FC would be coming off a home win over the Los Angeles Galaxy at BMO Field last Saturday, still unbeaten, and preparing for their ninth game of the season, a first-ever meeting with expansion side Inter Miami FC on Saturday in Florida.
But that alternate timeline is gone and the club has been forced to adapt.
With soccer and many aspects of life put on hold, after a few tense moments, everyone is finding a new normal.
“March 11,” began Eriq Zavaleta. “I'll always remember texting guys throughout that NBA night, the Rudy Gobert game, where he's the first athlete diagnosed with coronavirus and understanding at that moment that everything is going to change.”
“We went in the next day, but it felt weird to even go into work. It was such an uneasy time. That moment, for a lot of North America, was the moment that felt like this was real, especially for the sports world,” continued the defender. “That first week was uncertain. We didn't have a ton of answers the next day. The club did a great job to say, ‘Listen, this is not a time that we need to be together and training. You guys need to go home, get with your families, be safe and isolate yourself a bit; try to stay healthy, make sure your families are healthy.’”
“That first week was all about trying to create a new normal: for myself, for my family and for the club,” Zavaleta added. “After a couple days we decided to move forward and continue to work because we don't know how quickly it could end, how quickly we could play again, or even if we were going to play again and so we got to work.”
Greg Vanney credited those around him with moving quickly.
“When you get thrown into times like this, you have to adapt really quick and I would be surprised if any team in the league – in any league – adapted as quickly as ours,” said the TFC coach. “Our sports science group and our medical staff were, within days, putting together plans for the Zoom workouts online, engaging the players, and doing all the things you need.”
“We didn't know how long this was going to be, obviously it's gotten be very long, but they have kept new content there for the players, kept them attached socially, kept them working hard with each other, adapting along the way,” he continued. “I have to give them a ton of credit because before I was driving a lot of things as the coach, now I don't have the access to work with the players that way. They have stepped in and said, ‘We’ve got to keep guys fit, keep them engaged. We've got to do all those things on the physical side. That's the piece that we’ve really got to keep up.’”
“They jumped in and they were incredible,” he added. “And the players, they have stayed locked in for over a month now. They're all eager, like we all are, to get back on the field.”
Though much is different, Vanney is as busy as always, just not in the same way.
“I'll jump in and get in the workouts, say hello to the guys, check in with them from time to time, help get new content out, give some updates on where things are at, stuff like that. Prepare some video to have some conversations with the players,” he detailed. “I'm as busy right now at home as I would be in the facility, it's just a different busy.”
“Between helping around the house and the kids, with four of them, that's a lot more of my responsibility now than it was if I'm at the facility all the time and the kids are in school,” he continued. “But also planning a new season. When we come back, whenever that is, the games are going to come fast and furious, we know that. We're going to be playing every three to four days and we've got to have a plan to be able to be successful, to get as much out of our roster as we possibly can.”
“Players are going to have less rest, we're going to find rotations, so we're trying to map out scenarios of what that might look like. I'm putting together game models and all that stuff because we're going to have far less training time, less time to adapt from game to game and so we need to be very consistent and very clear about what it is,” Vanney outlined. “I like to stay a little unpredictable for the opposition, it's going to be really difficult to be that way this year. We're going to have to be the best version of us and trust that that's going to be enough to win games that are on top of each other. And just be smart about how we use and keep the players fit and healthy and all that. It's a different challenge now than it was when the season was running as normal.”
While the coach sketches out plans for whatever the future holds, the players are continuing to put in work of their own.
“We're all working out daily to stay as prepared as possible. Every morning I’m on Zoom with a group of players and a trainer, making sure that we're working, working properly, and keeping our bodies fit and ready,” said Zavaleta. “That's a difficult thing to do because when there's not a finish line, it's hard to build a path, but we're doing the best we can.”
“We have a group of guys who are willing to work and who want to continue to be ready for whatever our next moment is because it's what we all live for, it's what we all play for,” he added. “We've created a new normal – what feels like a new normal at least – and we'll continue to stay healthy, stay positive and stay ready for whatever comes next.”
More used to gathering at the BMO Training Ground as a group, spending hours together on the pitch and around the facility, it has been an adjustment to foster that same camaraderie from distance.
“It's interesting. My wife does a lot of these group workouts and things like that and I always thought it was funny, but it's important to stay connected,” stressed Zavaleta. “It's an easy time to stay in your own bubble and protect your people, but these are my brothers and it's fun to have the motivation to keep working with the guys who I've been battling with for many years.”
Whether as a full group or a series of smaller ones based on units or positions, the bond stays strong.
“We have fun with each other, we push each other, and we stay in touch because we believe that the most important thing to do at the moment is to stick together,” Zavaleta added. “This is a group that has done that, will continue to do that. It's the most important thing we can do: stick together.”
Everybody learns the previous evening what the next day will hold.
“They send us the workout the night before, what time we’re going to meet and all the exercises we're going to do,” explained Justin Morrow. “We get on at a specific time, have a little chat before it all starts. One of the training staff is leading us in exercises, usually a circuit-type workout, where you're doing exercises for a certain amount of time, rest for a certain amount of time, and you're running through the list.”
“We do that a couple times a week. They've gotten bikes out to us, so there's a group that does cycling, an indoor spin class, a couple times a week. And there's a yoga class once a week,” he continued. “Varying up the exercises, different ways that we can stay fit inside of our homes, but being able to do it with our teammates gives us that connection that we miss so much. Just a little bit of time to make some jokes, see how everyone's doing, check in on everybody and make sure we're all doing okay.”
It is not the same as the face-to-face interaction on the field and in the locker room. It’s funny the little things that are missed: the simple act of passing a ball back-and-forth.
“I miss that a lot,” admitted Morrow. “It's a big part of our jobs. Everyone sees the finished product of what comes out on a Saturday night, when the stadium is full and the lights are on, but there's a lot that goes into that. It's not just about having the ball at our feet, but connecting to each other off the field, the relationships that we build, that makes us so successful on game days.”
The average day looks a little different for Morrow and company in these times.
“Most of my day is taken up taking care of my daughters,” he began. “We're early risers because they wake up around 6 am. We’re making breakfast, spending time together. I always turn on the news first thing when I wake up. Mayor Tory has been on CP24 every morning at 6:30, which is incredible, so I always listen to him, make some breakfast.”
“And then we have a school routine that we do throughout the day, jumping around to different activities. TDSB has come through with this online portal and the girls can get their schoolwork done, so we spend some time doing that,” he continued. “I have about an hour so to get my workouts done in the morning over Zoom. We have lunch and after is a little bit of a quiet period in our house where maybe our older daughter will watch a little bit of TV, the younger one takes a nap. That's some quiet time for my wife and I, as well. And then we hop right back into it in the afternoon.”
Cooped up like everyone else, the Morrow family relishes the luxury of a backyard.
“We're in a house around High Park, so we have some space of our own, can spend an hour in the backyard. And then making dinner between 5 pm and 6 with a bit of calm period after that and then it's off to bed for the girls between 7 pm and 8. That leaves me and my wife an hour or two to relax, read a book, talk, watch a TV series before we go to bed around 10 pm and wake up and do it again.”
The changes have been difficult on everyone, but perhaps more so on those who do not understand why it is necessary.
“It's tough on the young ones. They're starting to understand, but my oldest daughter is so social,” said Morrow. “If we're out on our front porch and a kid across the street is on their front porch, they see each other and want to run to each other. She doesn't really understand social distancing. She’s got the hang of it, but it's a tough transition for them.”
Even some as commonplace as schooling is very different in these peculiar times.
“It's really interesting what they’ve been able to pull off with this online work,” credited Morrow. “My oldest daughter is only in junior kindergarten, so the work they're doing isn't so intense, but her teacher has recorded herself reading books to the students, the child can see both their teacher’s face and the book on the screen. Whether the purpose is learning math or words, it’s really cool how they've been able to pull that off.”
There is one particular moment of pleasure, when the Morrows and the rest of their neighbourhood, like much of the city, go out on the porch to make some noise in support of all the essential workers helping the world through this crisis.
“7:30 pm, clap, bang on pots and pans,” cheered Morrow. “She’s gets up for that.”
Finding those little moments are vital to staying sane.
“Everybody is finding their own ways. I’m working out as much, or maybe more, than ever, trying to improve, trying to push the boundaries, trying to get stronger and fitter. But I'm also reading more,” said Zavaleta. “I started January 1 saying I'm going to read 12 books this year, one a month. I thought it was going to be difficult. When preseason is going on, you've got time on your hands to do that, so I was able to get ahead and then this happened.”
“Reading more, working out tons, and my wife taught me how to play chess,” he added. “I'm trying to learn how to play that, but otherwise it's business as usual: spend time with my family, spend time with my dog, and catching up [with everybody], and trying to keep my mind off of the negatives and on to the positives.”
For Vanney, it’s a small moment of routine.
“I've got a nice drive-through coffee shop close to the house,” he revealed. “That's one of mine, my ‘get out of the house’. And then usually I'll go for a run through the community, try to blow off a little bit of energy and steam. And then I’m out playing with the kids, doing some training and stuff like that.”
Now, as always, it is important to be present.
“I've just really been trying to be in the moment with my family, be a really good dad, be a good husband,” focused Morrow. “I'm reading a couple books that I'm shuffling in between. Before all this happened, in the last year so, I've been able to get into public speaking a little bit more. I've done three or four events over the last two years. I had an event scheduled for the summertime where I was really going to be doing my first keynote speech and so I'm still building that out right now.”
For those curious, the books Morrow is shuffling between are:
“Good to Great by James Collins, which is a book that my college coach used to ram down our throats, but now I can appreciate a little bit more. And Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, about Pixar and how they've created this environment that really fosters creativity and everything they’ve gone through to become a company at the top of their game, which is pretty fascinating.”
This is one of those rare times that one knows they are living through history. It isn’t easy upending all the little things taken for granted, but it is worth remembering all the good that remains.
“I've been doing pretty well actually,” responded Morrow when asked how he was holding up. “I try not to fall victim to the circumstances. My immediate family is healthy, my extended family has been healthy, and I'm just so thankful for that.”
“I know that so many people are struggling, know how much is going on throughout the world, and so I just feel really incredibly thankful that I have this time to spend with my family,” he continued. “This is a major event that I'll be talking about with my young daughters when they're older. We'll be telling them stories about the things that we did during this time, how we stayed at home for such a long time and how imperative it was for the health of the world.”
Everyone misses soccer, but this is no trifling matter.
“I’m in contact with players throughout the league and nobody that I've talked to has taken it lightly,” stressed Morrow. “We understand how important the situation is. Of course, we miss soccer. Everyone wants to get back, but when you take a step back and you see all the people that are going through real struggle, you realize that this is not about sports at all, it's about the greater good of society.”
The games will return in due time. Until then keep washing those hands.
“I can't even count anymore,” laughed Morrow, asked how many times a day he lathers and rinses by a raw-handed interviewer. “I had to get a big bottle of lotion and make sure that my hands weren’t ripping apart. There was a point where it was really cold outside and my hands were all scaled up and starting to bleed from washing my hands so much. I’ve got the lotion now, I’m good.”
Hard though it is to fathom, it has been nearly seven weeks since TFC’s 1-0 win over NYCFC. The soccer will return, but for now the club has some encouragement for all their fans in these trying times.
“My message is to stick together, to use this as a time to come together,” urged Zavaleta. “We have so many things that divide us and this is a time where humanity needs to come together because ultimately we need each other to overcome this.”
“Use this as an opportunity, whatever that means for you. For me it means I want to work on some of my weaknesses, build on some of my strengths, but also become a better person, lead in the community and show that we're going to get through this, but we have to do it together,” he added. “And continue to try to have a positive attitude because it's easy, when times get tough, to be negative, but as long as you can stay positive, stay close, we can achieve anything.”
Everyone has done so well.
“I'm extremely impressed and proud of Canadians, Torontonians, and the people around, and how they have, by and large, followed the protocols that have been put out,” said Vanney. “It's our best chance at getting back to life as normal, as quickly as possible, which, for us, is getting back on the field, entertaining, and bringing some of those raw emotions to the fans.”
“My message is: stay diligent, stay patient, and don't forget about us,” he continued. “We know we have a responsibility when we come back to bring some smiles and to entertain and to bring some excitement back to the fans and to the city. We're preparing for that, but we all just have to do what we have to do right now to get through this tough challenge. Stay diligent and let's keep doing our thing because we're doing a good job.”
The final word to Morrow, a reminder why: “Staying home, practising social distancing, washing your hands, taking all the appropriate measures not only helps us get through this as quick as possible, but saves people's lives.”
“It's hard for some of us to feel that,” he continued. “We're doing the right thing, we're in our homes, and we can only read the reports, but people's lives are being taken away and loved ones are gone. Us being home really helps, as much as we can do that we really are saving lives. There will be brighter days ahead.”