TORONTO – Even for those to whom the pattern is familiar, the first day prompts a flutter.
Toronto FC opened the 2021 preseason on Wednesday with the first proper training session.
“It's special, the first day back,” said Michael Bradley, preparing for his eighth season with TFC. “Little by little the building has started to get busier over the last week or two, guys trickling out of quarantine, guys back in doing a little bit, but obviously the first official day of preseason, especially with a new coach and a new staff, that's exciting. Even for me there's still butterflies coming in on a day like today, excited to get going, wondering what training is going to be like.”
“All of the things that are normal. And when you love the game, when you love to play, when you love your teammates and the people that you're around every day, then it's exciting to come in,” he continued. “And especially now when you come off a long off-season, you look around and you see the excitement and just the joy in everyone's face to be back together, to be back doing what we love and getting to work... there's nothing better.”
“We talked about it in the meeting before training, things are going to come quick this year,” Bradley highlighted. “We have a final to play in a few weeks and if we can take care of that game then there's two big games against Leon a few weeks later. There's no time to waste. And if that can't get you going, then not sure you're in the right place.”
The MLS regular season is set to kickoff the weekend of April 17, but Toronto got off to an earlier start than most of the rest of the teams in the league because they have an earlier date in mind.
The 2020 Canadian Championship Final remains to be decided.
TFC will face Forge FC, winners of the Canadian Premier League’s Island Games. That game is yet to be set, but must take place before the Concacaf Champions League begins early April – the winner of TFC-Forge is set to play Mexican side Club Leon on April 7 in Leon.
A date and time for the debut of a new all-Ontario clash, the first meeting between TFC and a CPL side as well, are nearing, but not yet set in stone.
“I've just heard a few different things,” replied Armas, asked if he had a firm idea on when the match would be played. “We have to prepare for potentially a mid-March, end of March, we're just not sure. It would be unfair to give any specific dates, but we're trying to ramp things up so we can really be prepared day one, physically, tactically, the whole bit.”
Just one of the many uncertainties ahead.
Last season, with the borders closed, TFC set up home base in East Hartford, Connecticut. With the pandemic ongoing, where the team will play their home games this season remains to be decided.
“It's like the Canadian Championship question, there's options, we're prepared,” explained Armas. “If things clear up here, what would that look like, but there has to be some things in place. We're considering different options, but we're prepared, mentally and physically, that we might have to set up shop in the States. And we're more than comfortable to do that because the guys did it last year and they did it well.”
With so much hanging in the air, TFC will likely stay home for the time being rather than search out sunnier climes.
“There's a good chance we stay in Toronto for the duration of preseason,” said Armas. “The first game, the Canadian Championship, it's approaching quickly. We just have to stay in our comfort zone, prepare properly without too much stress of travelling and being away from home. We're going to get on a schedule of really trying to ramp things up early while balancing out that players are at different fitness levels and getting off of quarantine.”
Preseason games will be tricky to arrange, but assistance may come from unexpected quarters.
“There's some challenges in terms of opposition,” admitted Armas. “So there will be some intersquads and there’s even a chance we can get a little friendly with Montreal before our first game, depending on dates.”
“Montreal has been incredibly flexible saying, ‘How can we help? We're going to help you guys,’” relayed the coach. “That could happen, we just have to be mindful of protocol with MLS and who we play and keeping things safe.”
“We're prepared to vary in some intersquads for now as we get into bigger spaces moving forward. We'll make the best of it,” Armas stressed. “For the first 12 days or so a three on, one off cadence – three days of work, one day off to maximize the physical part of things as we get going and keeping guys healthy.”
A new season comes with both new challenges and familiar ones.
Armas brushed aside uncertainty as one he spends much time worrying about.
“That hasn’t been too challenging to me. I'm taking one day at a time,” he levelled. “The year that we all came from has prepared us a bit for this time: that you have to roll with it a bit and you have to be very adaptable and physically and mentally up for that. [The uncertainty] hasn't been detrimental at all, in fact I'm just really excited.”
“I'm excited for this opportunity, from the first conversation with Ali Curtis, to understand what [it means] when you talk about ‘All for One,’” Armas continued. “That model shows up everywhere, that phrase shows up, and it means something around here. In a lot of buildings, a lot of places you go, there's these phrases and models and what really is important is that there's actions that support that.”
“And here, whether it's Ali and Bill [Manning], whether it's Melissa [Frith] and Tania [Pedron], Ted [Tieu] and Arthur [Casupanan], people who take care of us, the admins here at the club, Sacha [De Almeida] the equipment manager, everyone is in on this here; not because it shows up on walls, it's the actions that are leading the way,” he observed. “And I speak that language, I do. I'm a team first guy, I'm a team player. I seamlessly have stepped into this.”
“So I'm thinking of the challenges, but it's not been stressful that way, it's really about delivering from day one here and delivering excellence in every way,” Armas emphasized. “My time has been long days, busy days preparing for preseason and beyond.”
Bradley set the tone for how the team is approaching those challenges in these uncertain times.
“It's been tough for everybody, man. I don't want to hear that it's tougher for me or tougher for TFC or tougher for Canadian teams. I am sick of the sympathy and the excuses,” he stated. “We understand it is what it is right now for everybody all over the world. Nothing is simple, nothing is straightforward, there are no easy answers, but it's reality right now.”
“So for me, the excuses and the sympathy while we were away from home last year and we had to play in Hartford and this and that. It's just enough,” Bradley added. “I feel good. I'm really excited for the season and today was a good first day.”