TORONTO – The MLS is Back Tournament has begun and come Sunday, Toronto FC will get their first taste of action in over four months.
Having had their arrival in Orlando delayed, Toronto’s first match against D.C. United was rescheduled to Sunday morning, a 9 am kickoff. The action in Group C got underway on Thursday night when the New England Revolution defeated the Montreal Impact 1-0 on a goal from Gustavo Bou.
Since arriving on Tuesday, TFC has been adjusting to their new surroundings at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
“Life in the bubble has been fine,” said Michael Bradley during a Zoom media call from Orlando on Friday afternoon. “Our group has good experience of being away from home, of spending time together, whether it's long preseasons or the Champions League. None of this stuff fazes us.”
“The first 12 to 18 hours everybody was in their room as we awaited the first test results and since then we settled into a good routine,” he continued. “For the most part we’ve stuck to ourselves, spent time on our floor with each other. We've found a good routine and we're excited as the game gets closer.”
“When you take everything else out, as difficult as that is in a moment like this, everybody's just really excited to get back to playing,” explained the TFC captain. “So when that whistle blows on Sunday morning you're going to see a group of guys and a team that is ready to go for it, really excited to be back on the field together. And we're going to enjoy every part of that because as we've been reminded time and time again over this last stretch you can never take that part for granted.”
With two days to go until their first match, Greg Vanney saw Friday as a “turning point” for his group.
“The first few days just adapting to the new surroundings, the new protocols; training in the morning, the heat and humidity is pretty high,” detailed Vanney of the adjustments. “Today we were able to get outside early and it was raining so the conditions were cool. We trained relatively light, did some things tactically, and then the guys just had some fun.”
“We did a finishing game and it was a lot of laughing and guys relaxed a little bit and settled in,” he continued. “That was a great moment in an environment that, at times, can feel a little bit tense and, obviously, very sterile which is a good thing.”
“It was nice for guys to let their guard down for a little bit on the field and just enjoy themselves because that's what it's all about,” added the coach. “I feel good with where we're at. It's been many months since we've played and a lot of training hours – from individual training to small group to team – guys are just looking forward to playing. We know the conditions are going to be challenging, especially in the latter part of the game. We just have to be prepared to suffer a little bit physically and just keep pushing through it.”
The tournament kicked off on Wednesday night with an in-state rivalry match, the first-ever, between Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF. Orlando won 2-1, but it was the display of unity and intent prematch that deserved the headlines when the Black Players for Change (BPC) raised their fists in solidarity.
TFC’s Justin Morrow is the executive director of BPC. He helped organize the demonstration and was instrumental in their formation.
“I’m so proud to have been able to stand out there with all the [players and staff members]. It was important that we were all involved because we're all in this fight together,” said Morrow, speaking specifically about having TFC General Manager, Ali Curtis, by his side.
“It's been an incredibly emotional year: you start with something like a pandemic, all the emotions that come along with that – the stress, the anxiety – and you combine that with what happened in America and it's just been really tough,” explained Morrow. “It'll be difficult to be playing these games with everything that's happened, but I'll be honoured to be out there as always representing Toronto.”
“I felt incredible support from them,” thanked Morrow. “And I'm happy that we have this platform as professional athletes, professional soccer players, to be able to keep this awareness going, keep this conversation going, and be the start of a bigger initiative, a bigger action, to really make change.”
That powerful statement, on the heels of a four-month hiatus and with the Florida summer in full swing, was followed by games of the appropriate calibre under such circumstances.
Vanney has tracked the action closely.
“There's a lot of what I expected,” he began. “Some of the games in the heat have slowed down a little bit, but the first night the game looked like a lot of energy and like preseason form in an environment where games matter.”
“Usually by the time the season starts you've got four-to-six games under your belt and you work a little bit of that preseason form into something,” compared Vanney. “But now your first game is literally in an environment where the points matter, the games are critical, and so it was a little bit chaotic, if I may.”
“But I see these games settling in now as people get a little more comfortable with their surroundings. As teams start to get more games, it'll become a little cleaner and a little sharper,” he predicted. “We're going to try to be the best version of how we want to play on Sunday. That means getting control of the game, getting control of the ball as much as possible and playing.”
Under these unique circumstances, where the group matches count both for progression in the tournament and the regular season standings, an adjusted mindset is required, especially since TFC’s second match, against Montreal, comes three days later after D.C.
“Our mentality is ‘knockout’, though we know there are three games in the group,” Vanney announced. “There's a certain amount of points that are going to be needed to get us into the next round and we have back-to-back games essentially, with minimal rest.”
“All of those things we have to put into the pot, stir it around, and come up with the best formula,” he added. “We're going to approach with the mentality that the points are critical, both for league play, but also to get us into the next round.”
With a larger game-day roster – expanded to 23 from 18 – and five substitutions rather than the usual three, Vanney knows every player will be needed, especially given the schedule change condensing the space between the first two outings.
“We'll have to utilize our depth. We believe we have a deep team and we'll have to find good ways to manage our roster. It helps us that we have five substitutions,” he added. “Points in the first game would be really nice to have, so we're going to go for everything in the first game and then we'll set ourselves up to get points in the second game.”
Tempting though that date with the Impact may be, all focus is on D.C., who will provide a worthy challenge in the opener.
“D.C. as an opponent are always organized; they always compete hard. It's never an easy game,” reminded Bradley, looking to make his return from the injury suffered in the 2019 MLS Cup Final. “Even in moments when their backs are up against the wall they still find ways to make games difficult. The playoff game last year at BMO Field was a great example.”
“It didn't look like they had much going and we had things under control and they're able to find an equalizer right at the end and push us to the brink a little bit,” he recalled of the playoff encounter last season. “We have respect for them.”
“Right now everybody's in the same boat, in terms of a long time without a game, without any real match-like preparation. Everybody has been training the last few weeks, but it's not been a real long time that we've been back in full team training,” leveled Bradley. “We've talked a lot about this idea that, as the tournament starts, the teams that have the strongest mentality, the teams that can still find ways to win as they're playing into it, those will be the teams that have the best chance.”
For his part, this nearly seven-month spell away from the game is one of the longest in his lengthy career.
“There's no two ways about it,” said Bradley. “For me it's been a long time – too long, without a game.”
However unique these particular circumstances are, Toronto are well-versed in make-or-break situations and adapting to the shifting sands.
Morrow pointed to two moments from the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs that stand out in that regard.
“Look at giving up a goal against D.C. at home in the last minute of regulation when we really had the game in the bag and the emotions that can go on in that moment,” highlighted Morrow. “But we were able to turn that into a positive thing and reacted very well to it.”
Toronto won 5-1 after extra time.
“And then you look at the game in Atlanta – going down, nearly being on the brink of 2-0 – and reacted to that situation too. In this tournament every single moment is going to count,” he stressed. “Even in the group stage the difference between giving up one goal and two goals may be the difference between advancing. Us knowing that and having lived these situations in the past will serve us well going forward.”
To find success every single element will be explored, every potential moment used purposefully, even the water breaks.
“The hydration breaks are mini-timeouts,” said Vanney. “You get an opportunity to address your whole group and try to put them back out in the best way possible based on what you've seen.”
“It’s for them to get hydration and to recover, but it's one of the only times in the game where you could have all the players close enough that you can speak to them at the same time and you're not sending a message out like ‘telephone,’” he continued, referencing the child’s game and the inherent informational loss it entails. “Early in the season one of the things that teams aren't great at is adapting on the fly. That tends to take a lot of games under the belt, a lot of preparation, a lot of work together and seeing a lot of different things from different teams over the course of a season. So for us to utilize these... I'm sure every coach is thinking the same, to give out whatever message was needed. We're all going to use them the same way, no doubt.”
MLS is back, here comes TFC.
“We all know that when you play in a tournament like this, your ability to advance and control your own destiny as you move on, so much hinges on the first game and your ability to take points,” said Bradley. “So all focus and concentration is on D.C. right now.”