TORONTO – With the first game of 2021 fast approaching, the scene shifts to Orlando.
Back at training from an enforced pause, Toronto FC leave home for sunnier climes on Wednesday in preparation for and anticipation of action on the horizon.
“We're just so happy to be training again and most importantly healthy from a COVID standpoint,” said Chris Armas during a Zoom conference call on Monday. “It does put things in perspective very quickly, to see players affected and players’ families affected.”
“In terms of training, we had a few good weeks where we thought we had a good rhythm and building momentum. And like we know in these difficult times, you have to be flexible and we were,” he continued. “We made the best of the situation, trying to do as much as we could from home physically and with Zoom meetings to still try to get on the same page from a soccer standpoint.”
“It threw off the rhythm and the momentum, so we had to rebuild that and we have,” Armas added. “We're in a good place right now as we ramp things up on the eve of heading to Orlando.”
With the decision to postpone the final of the Canadian Championship, the first match of the year now falls on April 7, the first leg of a Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 series against Mexican side Club Leon.
A touch more than two weeks away.
“Guys are really excited,” relayed Michael Bradley. “Obviously it's been a stop and start preseason so far. The sessions that we have had, the days that we’ve been here [at the training ground], at the stadium, we've taken full advantage of, so that part's been amazing.”
“The work has been really good, guys come in every day ready to train, ready to take in new information, ready to go after it in a good way,” he continued. “In a perfect world we would have been able to avoid the COVID stuff, but that's reality and the most important thing is that everybody's in a good place in terms of their health. And the rest is what it is, but we'll deal with it. Everybody's excited to get down to Orlando and have a good stretch of work there leading into Leon.”
Having begun preseason earlier than most other MLS clubs, with the anticipation of the match against Forge FC, TFC have been steadily adapting to the vision of their new coach.
“From day one guys have come in with eyes and ears open, ready to listen, ready to take in information, and ready to try to apply it every day,” said Bradley. “We still need more, more training sessions, more days, but everything is coming together in a really good way.”
There is always more work to do.
The shift to Florida brings warmer weather and a proximity to opponents that opens new possibilities.
“We have the mindset to use some of the days for pure running, to build up our base fitness,” began Armas. “Use it to balance out the tactical side of things, style of play, implements. In the next two-and-a-half weeks we have to prepare the team physically and tactically.”
“How do we intend to do that? We'll be in a climate that we can push a few double days because there's other little things – attacking and defending set pieces, throw-ins, all the other things that determine outcomes,” he highlighted. “So without covering every little thing – that will be impossible – we have to understand and plan accordingly, say, ‘Okay, we have so much time, let's use it the right way.’”
“Some double days, some video sessions, we have to get guys healthy, we have to keep guys healthy, we have to push the physical component so guys can then push 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 80,” Armas continued. “We're going to play a few scrimmages leading up. We'll have an intersquad along the way, we will play against Miami's USL team on the March 27 and then on April 1, which is six days before our game against Leon, we’ll play against Columbus – which team we get from Columbus, not sure, but it'll mostly be about us, pushing the fitness, pushing the football. And that’s that.”
“We only have two weeks when we arrive,” he summed up. “It's getting out on the big space, teach it, train it, apply it, and reassess. And then in between the Champions League on April 11 we'll play against Miami's first team, that's the plan. How we use that game, we're not sure yet. We can use it as a little bit of a training session to work on some things in between Champions League, depending on the result and all, and for sure we're going to get to look at certain guys on the day as well. That's as much as we could put on our calendar for the moment, but we think we have a good plan.”
The club is making arrangements for families to join the players down in Florida. The aim: construct a proper home away from home.
“It's going to be nice,” smiled Armas. “We want to create an environment. Last year it became stressful – the times that we're in, away from family – we want to make sure that it feels like a regular season in some way, setting up a home base there, that that's our home, we go to training and you go home to your family. The more that we can have there, even better because it helps everything.”
“My wife, Justine, is planning to come visit at some point,” he anticipated. “Bill Manning, Ali Curtis and our ownership, the efforts that they've made to have families be a part of it, for the well-being of the families, the children and the dads, for players, for staff.”
“‘All for One’ means something here – people taking care of people, caring about the right things. That's been tremendous,” Armas added. “I told some of these guys, they can drop their kids off in my room, I'll babysit – and then I had to rethink that.”