TORONTO – However the 2021 season kicked off, it was going to be with a massive game.
Heading into the year, there was the potential of two big matches on the docket for Toronto FC: the 2020 Canadian Championship Final against Canadian Premier League Island Games Champions Forge FC and, to the winner, a spot in the Concacaf Champions League and a Round of 16 tie with Mexican side Club Leon.
The CanChamp Final was set for March 20, but in these complicated times nothing is set in stone. The fixture was postponed to later in the year and TFC were selected to represent Canada in the Champions League.
The birth of a new provincial derby will have to wait – the match will be played in Hamilton, at Tim Hortons Field, when circumstance allows.
“On one hand it was disappointing, it still is disappointing,” said Michael Bradley during Monday’s Zoom conference call ahead of the team departing for the next stage of preseason in Florida. “It makes so little sense that Forge wasn't given the clearance to train. It seemed like it was going to be hard to have a real final, a special final that had any type of competitive integrity.”
“So at that point you're just trying to find a solution, a less than perfect solution, that still fits both sides, that shows respect for the clubs, the fans, the game itself,” he continued. “It seems to me that, based on what I've heard and read, more people than not feel like the decision tried to take into account everybody's interests and respect all parties.”
“I understand there might be a few people in Montreal who aren't happy,” Bradley added. “But that's life.”
It is necessary to be flexible in these fluid times.
“We were working towards that game, there’s a lot of excitement internally here of the thought of lifting a trophy and competing for a trophy while taking nothing for granted. We knew that it'd be a big challenge,” said Chris Armas. “We weren't sure where we would play the game and when exactly, but we were preparing for it.”
“We didn't spend much time harping on why it wasn't going to happen now because at some point it will be played. I received the communication that we will be representing Canada in the Champions League, so it is what it is, we just get to work and prepare for that next opponent,” he continued. “We didn't ask for that, we didn't lobby for anything other than we'll be ready for the game and we're up to the challenge of earning a spot. Now that we will represent Canada it's we will do that the best that we can and make Canada proud, the way we go after the tournament.”
Armas’ directive for April 7 at Estadio Leon was plain.
“At full fitness, at full strength, at full clarity,” he stated. “When you play in Champions League, when you play against top teams, Mexican teams, there’s a big challenge there as we all know. Some of [it is] the physical part of things, how to prepare for 90 minutes. As you try to push things little injuries sneak in. You're trying to push the envelope every day and you pick up a few things along the way. Not that you're building a house in a hurricane type of thing, but that's been a challenge.”
“There will be lots of little challenges, but we are thinking big picture,” Armas emphasized. “We want to throw everything at the tournament. We will be prepared and ready to attack it, for sure. And also thinking about the MLS season.”
“The guys have responded tremendously,” he continued. “The staff is working overtime to really implement the style of play and connect with each player and create clarity. And the players, I couldn't say enough. The way that the leaders of this team – Michael, Jozy [Altidore], Alejandro [Pozuelo], so many other guys – have stood tall. That has made it enjoyable. It's been challenging, but we were up for the challenge.”
Focus is squarely on Club Leon and the Champions League.
“We're going to get ourselves ready to go after them in a really strong, aggressive way,” summed up Bradley. “We know Mexican club teams. We know that if you show them too much respect, if you give them too much time, if you allow them to play the ball around and spread themselves out then they have good players, guys who technically are comfortable on the ball, guys who can really make a difference.”
“But if we can go after them and crank things up and really, in the right moments, step up, close them down and really put them under pressure, use our athleticism, our mobility, to put them on their heels – both when we have the ball and when we don't have the ball, then I think it makes for an uncomfortable game for them,” he continued. “There's no secret, we're going to be early in our season, [have to] deal with a little bit of altitude there. We'll have to understand that, but we're excited because we're getting ourselves ready for two big games against a very good team.”
“And look it's why you play the competition, to play these types of games,” Bradley added. “Some people say, ‘Ah, it's a tough draw.’ It's what you want. It's why you play this tournament to get games like this and so we're really excited.”
The second leg is scheduled for April 14 in Orlando and the MLS regular season kicks off shortly thereafter with a pair of all-Canadian matches: against CF Montreal on April 17 at Inter Miami CF Stadium and at Exploria Stadium in Orlando on April 24, Toronto’s ‘home’ opener, against Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
“We know those teams well,” said Bradley. “We'll be excited to get the season going. Right now everything is about Leon for us. Big games, big games right off the bat and we'll be ready.”