A week into their Florida adventure, Chris Armas continues to be pleased with the work Toronto FC is doing in anticipation of the start of the 2021 season.
“We feel like we're gaining momentum,” he began Wednesday’s Zoom conference call. “There’s a good rhythm to what we're doing. We've had a couple of double days, we've had good sessions, the weather is cooperating, and then we had, for the first time, a scrimmage against someone else.”
“It was good to get on the big field, see something different, and put some of our ideas and practices to work,” Armas continued. “We’re calling this the implementation phase. It's been good to see the guys grasping concepts.”
TFC played their first match against external opposition last Saturday, defeating Fort Lauderdale CF 3-0 with Alejandro Pozuelo, Patrick Mullins, and Michael Bradley providing the goals.
Fielding different groups in each half, Armas emphasized that the experience was all about understanding, both the game itself and the stylistic tweaks he is looking to implement.
“If you're going to play a certain way and now when it's 95 degrees and it's not so easy to be all out pressing and having that certain behaviour, what becomes important?” he levelled. “We realized on the day that as much as you want to move the ball, you were trying to score goals, so if that's going to be the emphasis all the things that we have talked about – playing with tempo and some verticality – that has to be at the highest level. We weren't quite fast enough, we weren't quite sharp enough; the spacing wasn't right, the connections, the ideas. Some of that is just that it's early and some of that is the conditions.”
“And then in the second half, where you see another group of guys go on the field, make some adjustments, now many more guys are getting on the run, challenging their back-line playing with intensity, relying on some counter pressing, it looked another way,” Armas contrasted. “In both halves, the thing that was evident is that there's suffering going on because there's the elements and that this is just where we are at in terms of an overall fitness level. Big, big benefits on the day to get everyone extended minutes and there was a lot of good things happening on both sides of the ball.”
The evolution of a style is always a work in progress.
“I'm not reinventing anything here, really just trying to add to what's gone on, but change is never easy,” admitted Armas. “There's a little bit of pushback, there's comfort levels, there's what players are used to doing. So even though we see an excitement and a commitment to what we're trying to do, in certain moments when things are flying out there you revert back to what's comfortable and normal and rehearsed, until it becomes truly the new way.”
“We're not completely on the same page now and again,” he allowed. “We're seeing a real understanding that when we don't have the ball, here are some of the things that really are important, non-negotiable things, and then in possession... that's one of the big differences because Toronto, in past years, has been very expansive, they make the field big. That, to be fair, has been very successful and relies on opening opposition up, the use of a back-pass and playing to the goalkeeper and slower buildups. And we're shifting towards playing faster and more vertical and short, quick combinations, playing with closer connections. So when we have the ball it looks quicker and when we lose the ball we can react and counterpress. It's already taking shape.”
With the opening leg of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 tie against Club Leon a week away, set for April 7 at Estadio Leon, midseason fitness will not be possible. The mental side of the contest takes on bigger importance in such situations.
“We will not be at our optimal level fitness wise; not many teams will be. We've had to play catch up,” said Armas. “That challenge is one that's been thrown in front of us. As you're trying to push every day, as you're trying to really ramp things up, push the tempo, push the training, push the intensity, extend the minutes, along the way, we've even picked up a few little things here and there that sets a few guys back.”
“But the goal is to keep moving guys forward physically, to push some minutes [Thursday] night when we play against Columbus [Crew SC]. Some guys 60 minutes, 80 minutes, we'll push and there will be a bunch of guys that are ready for it for a week from now,” he expected. “And we'll have five subs, so we don't need everyone to be ready for 90 minutes.”
“That's the challenge and that's the reality,” Armas continued. “How do you make up for that? Creating the clarity with and without the ball, pushing the envelope of the ability to focus and stick together and be an example of a team that understands those moments. We're not scared of those moments and the head doesn't go down in those moments. That you push yourself to stay locked in, to challenge each other to be engaged. It's easy to just shut down when the body's saying, ‘Hey, I can't do this anymore.’”
“The boys are up for it, let me tell you. What a group of guys,” he added. “I can see that they love the energy, they love the intensity and love playing fast. I'm smiling under the mask in training.”
Less than a week from the first taste of action, that anticipation is building.
“The simple answer is yes,” replied Armas, asked if he could feel it in the air. “I can see that there's a different focus. Training has been sharper, things are moving faster, there is a certain energy and with that fitness is coming.”