With the 2020 season having come to an end, the players at Toronto FC reflected on the year that was and the path forward during their end of season conference calls on Friday.
It was a difficult year, of that there is no doubt.
It began normally.
Preseason training camp opened in January and the season kicked off in earnest with two league matches – away to the San Jose Earthquakes and home against NYCFC – before events took a decidedly different turn.
Early March the league was put on first temporary and then indefinite hold and for the next three months, classic matches were the weekly fare as everyone monitored the progression and impact of Covid-19 around the world.
Come June the plans for the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando were set and the following month saw that play out. In August the regular season resumed, albeit with an all-Canadian element.
September saw TFC make East Hartford, Connecticut their home away from home, beginning a furious rush through October and November to the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I think everybody's going to remember this year as the year of the pandemic,” quipped Jonathan Osorio, asked how he was going to remember 2020. “It was tough, tough for everybody. A lot of uncertainty and that caused a lot of anxiety. You had to have a lot of patience this year.”
“It was tough to get your body ready for games,” he continued. “And then you stop for long periods of time and then you have to get ready quickly again. I'm grateful we got to play a season. It didn't go the way we wanted, but you learn from it and you try to get ready for the next season.”
Days removed from the disappointing playoff defeat against Nashville SC, the mind was already turning to 2021.
There remains much uncertainty, but plans are already being made, upcoming fixtures already tantalize.
The Canadian Soccer Association announced that the 2020 Canadian Championship Final between TFC and Forge FC, as winners of the Canadian Premier League’s Island Games, will be scheduled early next year.
Players will take some well-deserved time off to rest and recover, enjoy the holiday season with their loved ones, but off-season training will begin almost immediately. Long gone are the days of players letting themselves go before reporting to preseason camp.
“Last night I had trouble sleeping, so many thoughts running through my head of how I'm going to attack this off-season, trying to plan it out in my head,” said Omar Gonzalez. “It kept me up last night because we have to be ready to fight for another trophy at the beginning of the year, whenever it comes.”
“I want to be ready for my teammates, for my team, to lift a trophy,” he continued. “That’s something I’ve wanted to do since arriving to the club. And so when I look at this off-season I just have to keep myself going, find out how much time is enough time to just lay low and then start ramping up again. I’ll have a few discussions with some of our staff and see how to attack it, but definitely already thinking about it and to make sure that when they decide to play that game, we will be ready.”
In a season as disrupted as this, even when the matches were in full force, teams were allowed very little time on the training ground.
With games every few days, there is no time to really work on developing the side. It is all maintenance and scouting work at that point, not the long tactical sessions that foster growth.
For Michael Bradley, it was even more of a stop-start season.
The TFC captain had surgery for an ankle injury suffered in the 2019 MLS Cup Final in January, returning in time for the tournament in Florida, but then picked up a knee injury at the start of September as the regular season got rolling.
‘Time off’ means different things to different people.
“I'm excited for the off-season, excited to be able to use the time to really work and consistently train and push myself,” said Bradley. “I was looking back at the calendar in the last day or two, for different reasons I don't think I trained more than four or five weeks in a row the entire year and that was in this last stretch after the knee. Between the ankle and then the initial lockdown and then going to Orlando and then quarantining and then coming back and getting going, it was a crazy year – that's not meant in any way to be an excuse – it's just reality.”
“I feel good physically,” he continued. “I'm going to use the time over this next stretch, however long it is, to really work, really push myself, really get some consistent training and consistent work under my belt and look forward to starting preseason in a good way and being ready to come back and play a really, really good 2021.”
Exactly how players prepare will look different, but the motivation required remains the same.
“A pandemic is not going to affect my training regime,” stated Osorio. “It might affect where I train, but I will find a way to be ready for next year.”
“Every day I'll be training and I know other players, it will be the same thing,” he added. “We might have to train mostly on our own, but usually that's how it is in an off-season anyways.”
2020 was and is a year that carried a lot of lessons for those willing to learn. It was and is a year that tested the spirit, that threw up challenges left and right, that questioned how and why and what was important.
Despite it all, there were some highlights.
“There are definitely highlights,” reminded Gonzalez. “[I was] really impressed on just our team, how we all stuck together.”
“There were multiple points where we really had to come together to make big decisions. Whether it's negotiating with the league, being on the same page, everyone getting to voice their opinion on how they wanted to move forward, it was really great discussion that happened with our team and everyone respecting everyone's opinion and supporting each other,” he explained. “That was a real highlight for me, just made me really happy to be a part of this team, to be a part of this group.”
“And then there were moments on the field where we showed great resilience: comebacks, moments when a lot of our team was injured and we go on that five-game winning streak to put us in position to fight for a Supporters’ Shield, and things like that,” Gonzalez recalled. “There were a lot of highlights and difficult moments. There were lows, for sure, but there were also highs.”
“It's definitely a year that we will look back on and take a lot from,” he added. “There will be a lot of growth from this year because to have gone through this year it takes strong people and we definitely have that here.”
There were two games in particular that the defender pointed to: against Columbus Crew SC and the Philadelphia Union on September 27 and October 3, respectively, both at home at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Two teams with which TFC were battling for the top of the Eastern Conference and the league.
“[Games] where we didn't really start particularly well and it was looking tough, but we go into halftime and we look around in the locker room and Greg says something. We all looked at each other, we all know that we can give more and just come out and give amazing second half performances and really turn things around against top teams in this league,” Gonzalez recounted. “Moving forward you look back on those second halves and you think, ‘How can we do this for the complete game? How can we start the game like this and finish the game like this?’”
“‘If we can do that, we can be unstoppable,’” he continued. “And so I look back at that and say, ‘How can we work towards doing this every single game? How can we be more consistent? How can I do my part to shore up the back-line? To be more vocal? To lead the guys? To get guys in good positions, do my part and help my teammates?’”
“Some of the best feelings I had this year were those second halves, where everything was just clicking,” Gonzalez smiled. “I was watching my teammates in the zone, everyone was moving for each other, the other team was chasing shadows. I want more of that.”
Some of the most important lessons had nothing to do with soccer at all.
“I learned that I missed my kids a lot,” said Alejandro Pozuelo. “This is what I learned this year.”
That too is what the off-season is for, making up for time lost, this year more than most.
“I want to stay with my family, stay with my kids, try to enjoy,” responded the MVP candidate, asked of his off-season plans. “The last two, three months I could not be with them. We don't know yet if we’ll go to Spain, if we’ll stay in Toronto, but more time with my kids, this is the most important now.”
Rest, regroup, retool, and get ready for the 2021 season.
That is what is on everybody’s mind as December closes the door on one unforgettable year and welcomes a new one full of promise.
There will be some goodbyes and new faces, as always, but TFC will be TFC.
“When you look at the success that we've had, when you look at the way that we have managed to bring new guys in, start to bring our young players along and still compete pretty consistently at a high level that part has been good,” opened Bradley. “My hope in this off-season would be exactly the same.”
“As always, there's a few decisions to make I would imagine, in terms of some options, some contracts running out, things like that. Figure out who's here, who wants to be here, who doesn't want to be here, and then find the right ways to bring in a few new faces, some fresh blood to add to the group that we already have,” he continued. “The core group continues to be strong. Our young players made really good progress this year, and so we feel good about all that.”
“But regardless of anything,” Bradley added. “Whether you win MLS Cup or whether you don't, the idea is always to try to improve and get better and have as many good players and good competitors as possible.”