TORONTO – The countdown to the start of the 2021 season has begun.
Toronto FC opened preseason training camp mid-February ahead of an early start to the campaign and with the calendar page flipping to March, action is fast approaching.
A date for the conclusion of the 2020 Canadian Championship is yet to be set – TFC are anticipating the fixture will be played in the next two-three weeks – with a spot in the Concacaf Champions League and a two-game Round of 16 series against Mexican side Club Leon, to be played April 7, the winners’ spoils.
Chris Armas has been busy getting his group together and laying out the plan for his first season in charge of the club.
Nearly two weeks in, he likes what he sees.
“I've been so happy to see the commitment from the team,” said Armas on Monday afternoon. “From the very first training session to the attentiveness in video sessions, the commitment as a whole from the group as we're trying to implement some new ways of playing.”
“Most noteworthy is that guys like Michael [Bradley], Jozy [Altidore], and [Alejandro] Pozuelo, and [Jonathan] Osorio, the top players, and the other leaders of the team – Chris Mavinga and Omar [Gonzalez] and you can keep going – they're driving the internal messages to the players,” continued the coach. “Initially where I thought, ‘OK, there could be a hunger for some more intensity into how we want to play with and without the ball,’ it's been received well and I can see it in training.”
“The demands are high; that's been impressive with the group,” emphasized Armas. “In that it's been really enjoyable looking at the way a Jozy Altidore moves on the back-line, his commitment to scoring goals and running hard in big moments, his hold up play, all the things that become important for a striker. But then when we're asking him to counterpress and work against the ball, he's working his ass off to commit to the team in a big way.”
“Michael Bradley we're asking him to get around the ball more, to step to more players and cover ground differently. I can't tell you how impressive that's been. With Alejandro, one more guy who we're asking to stay higher up the field, closer to Jozy and operate in certain areas: he's met that demand,” he listed. “And then give him and certain guys the flexibility and freedom to be creative and to be who they are. I haven't worked with players like that, guys like Osorio, who is as good as I've seen in the league in that part of the field.”
“And then of the back-line it’s big demands, as we're trying to play higher up the pitch,” Armas added. “That puts a big stress, but starting with Chris and Omar, their willingness to just be uncomfortable at times, when in doubt they're being aggressive, again really impressive. And then, of course, Quentin [Westberg] and Alex [Bono] being connected differently.”
“In summary, it's just a big commitment and now we've seen the young players feeding off of that, adding to some of the energy and intensity that's required. They are putting a lot into things. Their heads are spinning a little bit with some of the speed of play, which requires a speed of thought,” he concluded. “It's been a great 9-10 training sessions over the course of two weeks and it's a heck of a group to work with.”
With the world as it is, the group is still just coming together.
“We're all here, it's just we're waiting on a few of the guys,” explained Armas. “Guys like Nick DeLeon just coming off quarantine with Auro, Ayo [Akinola] waiting for medical clearance that we're hoping comes mid-March. [Ifunanyachi] Achara, he's coming back from knee surgery. He's progressing really well, but we have to take that step by step and not skip anything in the process. Endoh, Tsubasa, he's another player that needs to get healthy. Everyone else is good to go.”
The majority of the roster from last season has returned and Armas sees a variety of ways he can deploy the team.
“We’ll have some flexibility. We can play with two strikers,” began the coach. “Pat Mullins looks settled right now, he tells me he feels the most settled in his life, personally, that he's ever been and I can see on the pitch every day he looks clear and he's been dangerous.”
“What's really been interesting, as when you start looking for other production, Erickson Gallardo has had a good preseason so far,” highlighted Armas. “He's had a good start. He's embracing what's being asked of him: to play free without the ball and trust his instincts. He's an aggressive player naturally, but we try to create more clarity for him and utilize his weapons, his ability to run and challenge back lines.”
“Jacob Shaffelburg the same, almost in a similar situation,” he added. “We've been utilizing him a certain way and he's looking dangerous. Jayden Nelson is off to a really good start. Other guys are embracing some of the pressing and counterpressing and an aggressive and intense nature. There's some interesting things there, but we have, we need, a little bit more time to assess what's going to be the most reliable cover.”
Last week’s announcement that Justin Morrow and Eriq Zavaleta were re-signing with the club brought even more known quantities into the fold.
While Zavaleta joined TFC in January 2015 – this will be his seventh season with the club, Morrow has seniority in that department, having joined in December 2013, one of the first moves that heralded a new era for the club.
Armas laid out a challenge to the veteran left-back.
“It's important that we re-signed Justin,” said Armas. “He's a good player, first and foremost, a proven left-back in this league.”
“Before I arrived in Toronto we had a good conversation, we can see how much he cares about the team and he's well respected by everyone in the entire organization and the league,” he continued. “His ability to play on both sides of the ball is a high level – he tells me no one could run by him, even as he's gotten older, no one's running by him.”
“I took a picture of him when I got here, on the wall, Best XI and I texted him, ‘Why not 2021?’ Let's get back to the player that is a lockdown outside back, is getting up, arriving, and helping us create goals and score goals. One more notch with his game this year, that's my objective with him,” laid out Armas. “Why not? I see how good he can be and is. He’s going to have a big year.”