TORONTO – Preseason is over. Now the fun begins.
Following the shortest break in club history, Toronto FC will hit the pitch on Tuesday night in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League with the away leg of their Round of 16 series against the Colorado Rapids in Denver (10 pm ET | TSN2; UnivisionDeportes.com).
Since the draw was held in December, TFC have had their sights set squarely on their next opponent. Given the significant changes at the Rapids, though, just what to expect come game time is a little unclear.
“We've had people watching,” said coach Greg Vanney on Friday. “It's easy to get games streamed or from other staff. You get a sense of what teams are doing: their lineup and how they're playing. We've been able to get some scouting reports and feedback.
“Obviously, they're a group that is still a work in progress with a new coach and a new system,” he continued. “We have a sense of what they're going to do, but at the same time we're going to try to do what we do. Hopefully we can get control of the game and they'll have to make adjustments.”
Given the difficult year in Colorado -- going from the Western Conference Championship to 20th in the table -- one thing is clear:
“It will be a very motivated group,” said midfielder Michael Bradley on Saturday. “The guys who were there last year won't have a good taste in mouth about how things went. With a new coach and new faces, there will be some optimism at the start of a new season.
“Anthony Hudson's teams typically play 3-5-2,” added Bradley, who will likely be lining up against longtime US national team colleague Tim Howard, in goal for Colorado, as well as former USMNTer Edgar Castillo, who joined the Rapids in the offseason. “We understand that at the beginning of season everybody is excited, motivated, they will be ready to go.”
Though he declined to say if there had been any back-and-forth in the build up, Bradley did say, “Timmy and I are never that far apart; we'll flip a message back-and-forth regularly. We'll enjoy the time to catch up at some point in and around these two games.”
Toronto expect that early-season positivity to be reflected in Colorado's approach.
“At times they'll be very aggressive, look to press, to force the tempo from defensive perspective,” Vanney said. “We'll have to be able to manage that appropriately to control the tempo of the game. At the same time, if you get through that initial pressure and they drop quickly, you have to find your way through. It's always difficult to break down five defenders.”
“[In attack], they've got some athleticism, some size, they can be direct,” he said. “With wingbacks, you find moments to get balls served for crosses and they've got good-sized guys that are going to be attacking it. We've got to be smart in how we manage all those things. We have to hurt them in our moments with the ball, force them to defend us as much as possible.”
That is the overarching message heading into the clash.
“We want to make it about us,” said Drew Moor, who spent seven seasons in Colorado before joining TFC two years ago. “We want to set the tone, get after them with our possession, our field position, open them up a bit. Much like the playoffs, away goals are extremely important. We want to get as many as we can. If it doesn't play that way, then keep things tight at the back.”
In anticipation of the CCL visit to the Mile High City, Toronto spent part of training camp in Mexico City, acclimating to both elevation and style.
“It was a great experience,” Vanney said. “Managing altitude was one part. The second was playing Mexican teams who are a little sharper, into their season. All the teams we played were eager to press; we were able to play under pressure. Each switched their 11 at half or 30 minutes, there was always a fresh group pushing the tempo, which was great.
“We didn't know when we selected our preseason plan that we were going to have Colorado,” admitted Vanney, Mexico City's higher altitude becoming an unexpected bonus. “It was a good eight days, the setting was fantastic. We worked through a lot of things.”
With opponent and topography considered, climate becomes the lingering unknown, with Arctic temperatures and snow possible for Tuesday. Not that TFC have left much of that to chance either, getting in some reps with the orange ball just in case.
“No matter what the color of the ball is, we're ready to play,” said defender Eriq Zavaleta. “I've looked at the forecast three times and seen three completely different things. We'll be prepared for whatever it is.”