The best way to prepare for a challenge is to test oneself.
Toronto FC did just that with a preseason contest against the defending MLS Cup Champions, Columbus Crew SC, on Thursday night at Disney’s Wide World of Sport.
Columbus opened the scoring through Pedro Santos, but a goal from Jozy Altidore in the first half was followed by three more from Patrick Mullins, Auro Jr., and Jordan Perruzza in the second before Crew SC added a second from Luis Diaz in the waning minutes.
A 4-2 win for TFC against a largely first-choice, highly-touted opponent provided valuable feedback for Chris Armas.
“I learned that the players are understanding exactly what we're asking and then committing to what we're doing in a big way,” said the coach post-match. “And it's a big ask because it's a lot of work when we don't have the ball.”
“When we're all out pressing or we're staying a little bit lower, I saw tonight that from Jozy on back to our goalkeeper we were together on everything that we did,” highlighted Armas. “We were hoping to put Columbus in a fast game and we were able to do that at a high level. I'm really proud of the effort as a group, but specifically I learned that these guys can play fast with and without the ball.”
Goals are the desired end product and there were many on the night.
“Four goals, four good goals,” said Armas. “Transition, pressing, aggressive, intensity: that was the way we created goals tonight, but we were also able to move the ball really quick at times and put Columbus in a fast game. That was the objective; that will be our objective.”
Less than a week away from the opening leg of a Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 tie against Club Leon, Armas wanted a test for his side.
“We said before the match, ‘Guys, if I can get you a few opponents in the league to just test yourself against, I bet some would say it's Columbus.’ I said, “Let them test us because we're going to find out exactly where we're at,’” he relayed. “We showed that we were right there. We knew fitness will be tested a little bit. We're not totally there yet and not even full strength in spots, but man the guys committed in a big way to what we're asking. We liked that opponent tonight, we were happy we got their best team, and I'm really proud of the effort tonight and execution.”
A bigger test, though a familiar one, lies ahead.
Armas has experience in Concacaf and the CCL as both a player and a coach.
“The advice that I give the players is that in those game there's tactics, there's game-planning, and then there's elements that you're not always so used to,” he began. “We talk a lot about how long does it take to figure out what type of game you're in? What is the opposition trying to do? What is the field like? To not get caught up with referees and bad calls and how long can you stay tuned in?”
“Those games challenge you at the highest level because there's good teams, it's a different style of play, it's player qualities – there's a different savviness built in, there's opposition crowd that you're against. The biggest thing, I would say, is the overall commitment to what we're trying to do and the ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time,” Armas stressed. “In Concacaf and the CCL, and in the biggest games, especially a tournament like that, it's set pieces, it's the staying tuned in – we say, ‘Can you stay online, really focused in?’ Because [the players] will be suffering and there will be parts of the game that aren’t perfect, so it's really about staying focused.”
Two weeks of training in the heat of a Florida sun will help with some of what awaits the team in Central Mexico.
“We are already getting accustomed to it and we plan to use it as an advantage,” replied Armas, asked if their base in Orlando will affect his tactical approach as the season begins. “We still intend to put teams in fast games. And we can play faster than opposition and then we can play faster than opposition in the heat.”
“Our preference is all out pressing, we like to make the opposition uncomfortable. We also understand in heat and humidity, maybe defending a lead or [due to] fatigue, that defending in a mid-block or a low-block that there are certain demands there,” Armas detailed. “That's going to be a big part for us. In heat, in humidity, in fatigue, in lacking fitness at altitude, it gets tested. So we are creating clarity. And then as the coach and the staff, we will manage it with substitutions, maximizing five subs, and pushing the levels physically so that we can endure longer.”
Some things you can’t experience until the moment, that is where the mental preparation factors.
“[It’s] understanding that it's not ‘if,’ but it ‘will’ get tougher,” he added. “Start of the game sometimes at altitude you feel something. You’ve got to push through. End of the first half and the last 20 minutes, 30 minutes of the game become challenging, but we have a good plan. We mitigate and attack those situations in a smart way.”