TORONTO – A fever is brewing.
Toronto FC are one of the two MLS sides that enter the fray on opening night, with the first leg of their round-of-16 tie with Panamanian side CA Independiente (8 pm ET | YahooSports.com, TSN4 in Canada, Univision Deportes in US).
Having reached the final of the competition last season, only to lose to Chivas de Guadalajara in penalty-kick shootout, there is a definite excitement in the air for TFC. The approach is slightly different this time around, however.
“Last year, [the Champions League] was the last event of 2017, even though it was positioned in 2018,” said head coach Greg Vanney on Friday. “[That] was a team that had won everything put in front of it and this was the one mission that still needed to be accomplished.
“It was good because we were flying through it. We committed everything we could to get it and we almost won it,” he continued. “The bad was what the end result was; it took a little bit of steam out of the group after that.”
Cold calculation is the name of the game.
“This year there is a much more consistent approach: It's one series at a time,” emphasized Vanney, harking back to the club's approach to the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. “Our first opponent is [in] Panama. We need to go down there and get a result, get ourselves the best chance [to] come back here and finish them off. And then we'll figure out who the next group is.”
“It's not this big discussion of 'This is the do-or-die championship because no [MLS side] has ever won it.' This is a process of one opponent at a time, putting ourselves back in a chance to try to win it,” he said. “Last year it felt like a must-win and we went in with all guns a-blazing. This [time] we're taking a good, solid approach to it. From that, hopefully we benefit, not just in the short term, but in the long term.”
Where in 2018 Toronto geared their preseason towards being ready to contest at altitude and in the heat of Mexico, this year they adjusted. Excess travel was limited by largely staying put in California; durability was the emphasis, as injuries, both in the Champions League and the MLS regular season, spoiled last season’s quests.
“There's a similar feeling,” said Jonathan Osorio of the anticipation of the CCL getting underway. “Maybe on the coaches' side, managing the tournament is a little bit different, as far as how many minutes players play and when.”
“We made it to the final last year, we lost by penalties, so I don't see much to change. That worked for us, why not do it again this year?” added Osorio. “The only thing is we'll have to make sure that everybody stays healthy all the way through.”
Last season TFC entered as a near-unstoppable juggernaut, winners of a domestic treble of the Canadian Championship, the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup. This time the offseason has been marked by unexpected departures.
Captain Michael Bradley waved away talk of similarities and differences, comparing and contrasting, firmly focused forward.
“This group that is here now is in a good way,” said Bradley. “Frame of mind, mentality, willingness to come in everyday, work. The initial part of preseason, there was a lot going on, but everybody who is here now is very excited to put all that behind us and hit the ground running for what we all believe is going to be a great year.”