From the frying pan into the fire.
Toronto FC will kick off the 2021 MLS regular season on Saturday with a derby match against Club de Foot Montreal at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Having begun the campaign with the most searing of trials – against the defending Mexican champions, Club Leon, in the Concacaf Champions League – attention turns to the league campaign.
“All the wives were giving us a hard time because they moved down here and we're playing our first two games against Canadian teams,” smiled Justin Morrow during the prematch Zoom calls on Thursday. “We were joking about that, but it's super exciting to get back to the regular season, kick off another year, have the wind beneath our sails of the game on Wednesday and ready to go.”
“Everyone's excited, not for just a regular season opener, but against our rivals, which we're always up for,” he added. “It'll be strange playing these games in what will feel like a neutral venue for all of us for a while, but once that whistle blows we're ready to go.”
It’s fitting that Chris Armas’ first MLS match in charge of the club comes against Montreal. They may not be the Impact anymore, but that does not change a thing.
“I know it means a lot to our players,” he began. “We don’t use the word ‘hate’, it’s such a strong word, instead it’s the competitiveness of each side, trying to show, with Vancouver, who is the best team in Canada, who gets the bragging rights.”
“It's a great thing for Canada, it's a great thing for our club, for MLS and sport in general. It’s that competition, the bragging rights, who is the best,” Armas continued. “What does that stem from? It's not just that it's Canada, it’s that we have met in big games, in who's representing Canada in Champions League, who is the Canadian champion, all this stuff. We've met in big moments, that gets the rivalry hot.”
“It's a big game for us. We've marked it on our calendar, and we know they do the same,” he stressed. “I love that I'm part of it, that I'll be part of it, my first one coming up, but I know what it means to the players and what it means to our supporters and we'll take it that way.”
With Thierry Henry departing in the offseason, Wilfried Nancy takes over the managerial reigns in Montreal.
Some familiar faces have gone – Bojan, Maxi Urruti, Anthony Jackson-Hamel – and new ones have arrived – Kamal Miller, Djordje Miihailovic, Bjorn Johnsen – new coach, new branding. Film from preseason has been sparse.
But Toronto will be ready.
“There's certain things that we have seen. We have some staff working on their team now, depth chart and starting lineup, so we've looked a little bit,” said Armas. “We've been putting all hands on deck to creating the internal clarity about us being us and getting on the same page, and at the same time really focusing on Leon.”
“But we know certain things about Montreal, structurally – system is 4-3-3 with certain ideas, but there’s been limited footage. We've tried to get our hands on some of the scrimmages – we were not able to go see them play live,” he continued. “We're limited on information, so we will go on what we know. A lot of it will be straightforward with certain players that we know will appear. Like against Leon, much of it will be about us.”
It’s now CF Montreal, but the old foes Sam Piette, Victor Wanyama, Romell Quioto, Emanuel Macial, Rudy Camacho will all still be wearing blue.
Toronto too are different.
Morrow has had first-hand experience of what it’s like to face Armas’ style of play.
“I've had a really interesting view of it, as I've been working my way in with the second group. I keep on telling these guys after training, ‘it's a really hard style of play to play against,’” relayed the defender. “It's really uncomfortable the way they put pressure on the ball, the way we step up. And on top of that, we win the ball and we're going the other direction fast. It's a little bit different than we've had in the past, but it's very fun to play and very hard to play against.”
“It's evident in training and now it's showing up on the field, which is what you want to see with, certainly a new coach, but with any coach, his style of play has really come into vision,” Morrow added. “Everyone is bought in, 11 players moving together at the same time, that's the sign of a good team.”
Armas hinted that some new bodies may be available for Saturday after moving past Leon with several starters absent.
“We’re working through the lineup for Saturday, there will be a few changes and there will be guys that run it back,” he suggested. “Having that continuity is still important.”
2021 is underway.
Both a new season and a continuation of the past. There will be challenges both new and familiar. And it begins with Montreal.
“Guys take their hits and they keep rolling,” said Morrow of these trying times. “We're a team that expects to win every time we step on the field, no matter who we put out there. And that's a privilege – not all the teams in this league can say that.”
No matter who sports the red, the expectation remains the same: “Win every single time we step on the field.”
“That's the mentality we have,” Morrow explained. “MLS seasons are long, there's a lot of ups and downs. I'm sure there will be good days and bad days, there's no doubt about that, but at the end of the day we're expected to win.”
“We put that expectation on ourselves. For as much as our wonderful fans put that on us, it's not as much as we put on ourselves,” he added. “If we come up with that mentality every single day, only good things can happen.”