TORONTO – This week may have seen the official start of training camp for Toronto FC, but preparation for the 2018 season began much earlier.
“This isn't really the first day,” smiled captain Michael Bradley at the re-christened BMO Training Grounds on Monday. “We've had a big group of guys who have been at it already for two weeks, working to make sure there is a real foundation, so that tomorrow morning in LA, we can walk out and feel like we're ready to get to work and know that this challenge of Champions League, something we've talked about, looked forward to, is just around the corner."
This season starts early for TFC, who kick off their CONCACAF Champions League campaign on Feb. 20 against the Colorado Rapids at Dick's Sporting Good Park.
Between first teamers reporting early and younger players called up to train with the big club, Toronto had some 20 bodies on the training field shortly after the new year began.
“We start fast this year,” said head coach Greg Vanney. “Guys around here are veteran enough to understand what they need, what their bodies need, to compete at the highest level. Michael is a good driver; communicating with everybody, letting everybody know what he is doing, what's available. Those guys are doing what they need to do.”
After all, in less than a month, the new challenge they've all been waiting for gets underway.
“It's exciting,” said Jozy Altidore of the Champions League. “A lot of prestige, a lot of very good teams; Mexican teams, Costa Rican teams. It's cool to play in, see where you stack up against the rest of the region. [It's a competition] we've had our eye on, we're really excited to get started."
In anticipation, Toronto has scheduled a series of matches against Mexican competition. They will face off against Club Tijuana in California on Jan. 31. And Vanney revealed they have four further matches, opponents yet to be named, planned during for their nine-day preseason camp in Mexico that will begin on Feb. 6.
Though their Round of 16 series will be against MLS competition, if TFC beat Colorado, their path to the final would potentially go through a pair of powerhouse Mexican teams: Club América and Tigres UANL.
That knowledge provides the motivation and helps alleviate the otherwise interminable grind of preseason.
“One of the tough things about preseason is that it can start so slow,” said Bradley. “You finish a season on a high, playing in the biggest games, in the best atmospheres, with everything on the line. And when you start up again real games, big games, feel so far away.
“This year we've got huge games coming up in just over a month. There's no time to ease into it. We've got to, from the beginning, have the right mentality, the right mindset to not waste one day; to get to work, to sharpen up, so we can give ourselves a real chance in Champions League.”
For Vanney, beginning the season with such heightened stakes provides a nice balance to the campaign.
“The way the year lays out is great for us,” he explained. “You have Champions League, which is exciting; nobody [in MLS] has won it before. Midway through we have another competition, the Canadian Championship, our only way into Champions League, which is important for us. And third you have the playoffs. [All the while], we have this ongoing season that is very important as well. We have these competitions along the way that will keep our guys focused.”
And when TFC's 2018 MLS regular season kicks off on March 3 against Columbus Crew SC, they will already have two intense matches in their back-pocket, something Vanney sees as an added bonus.
“You get some real competition under your belt before the opposition does,” he said. “At the same time, it's MLS, you have to play well on the day, be ready for when that game comes.”