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The names may be the same but it's a new-looking Toronto FC this season

Minutes after Toronto FC ousted Mexico's Club Leon from the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, captain Michael Bradley had a message for his team. "The knife stays between our teeth. Keep going.

Minutes after Toronto FC ousted Mexico's Club Leon from the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, captain Michael Bradley had a message for his team.

"The knife stays between our teeth. Keep going. There's more for us," the skipper, throwing in F-bombs for emphasis, told teammates crammed into a narrow corridor at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

While Mexican league leader Cruz Azul awaits in the quarterfinals of CONCACAF's flagship club tournaments, the MLS part of "more" starts Saturday when Toronto kicks off the regular season against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale, where the Quebec side has set up shop during the pandemic.

While the TFC names essentially stay the same, it's a new-look Toronto under new coach Chris Armas, who succeeded Greg Vanney. 

The 48-year-old Armas, a former elite defensive midfielder who went on to coach the New York Red Bulls, brings his own brand of intensity to the job. While personable, he burns brightly — as does his preferred aggressive playing style.

The goal is to pressure the opposition into mistakes, as TFC did against Leon. Armas calls it "hunt mode."

"We're all-in and all committed to aggressive defending and this idea that we're dangerous when we don't have the ball," he said.

The goal is to unbalance the opposition, win the ball back and then attack quickly.

"I've had a really interesting view of it as I've been working my way (back to fitness) with the second group," said veteran fullback Justin Morrow, who returned to action and scored in Wednesday's 2-1 win over Leon.

"And I keep on telling these guys after training (that) it's a really hard style of play to play against. I see it day-in and day-out at training. 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 but different than we've had in the past but it's very fun to play in. And very hard to play against … Everyone's bought in. Eleven players moving together at the same time. That's the sign of a good team."

It's also the sign of a fit one, even if Armas says there's more work to be done on that score.

He says sports science data shows that while Toronto was in the upper tier among the league in distance covered during games last season, it was one of the lowest when it came to sprint distance.

That is changing quickly under Armas, due to style of play and some of the young engines that are being utilized more. 

Toronto's pre-season got off to a rocky start, disrupted by a lockdown back home after the club reported nine cases of COVID-19. Add a wholesale change in off-field personnel including the sports science department, Armas' demanding tactics and a move to Florida and TFC bodies have taken a licking.

"We've taken some knocks as we're trying to implement a really high-intensity transition-based team," Armas acknowledged.

Toronto has a long injury list entering the season.

Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo (thigh), Chris Mavinga (calf), Erickson Gallardo (groin), Julian Dunn (hip) and Ifunanyachi Achara (knee) are unavailable Saturday. He club said Gallardo, who left the first leg of the Leon series on a stretcher, had surgery Thursday.

Star striker Jozy Altidore (thigh) and Tsubasa Endoh (sports hernia) are listed as questionable. Midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who has been dealing with a thigh issue, is suspended after kicking out at Nashville's Alex Muyl in the playoff exit.

While Osorio escaped punishment from referee Robert Sibiga, the play was subsequently reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee, which handed out the one-game ban and an undisclosed fine.

He can serve the suspension Saturday because he is not listed as being out on the injury list.

Striker Ayo Akinola, who has been out with an undisclosed ailment, is said to be healthy and working his way back to full fitness.

Armas has already lived up to his promise to unleash the club's youth. The club has 14 players on its first-team roster who are 23 or under (including 21-year-old defender Rocco Romeo who is out on loan).

There are three teenagers: Jahkeele Mashall-Rutty (16) and Jayden Nelson and Ralph Priso (both 18).

Toronto signed 20-year-old defender Luke Singh to a homegrown player contract Friday, making the 20-year-old from Brampton, Ont., the 26th player in club history to sign for the first team from the TFC academy.

Singh saw action in both legs of the Club Leon series, acquitting himself well.

His signing brings the first-team roster to 31. MLS roster size is officially 30 plus one, with the third goalkeeper usually filling the 31st slot. Toronto has some roster room with Dunn, Gallardo and Achara on injury reserve and Romeo on loan.

GM Ali Curtis continues his hunt for a third designated player, a search complicated by the pandemic. He's looking for a game-changer.

In the meantime, Armas is looking to make the most of what he has. He has seemingly taken the shackles off Bradley, allowing the 33-year-old to roam farther forward. And he clearly knows how important Bradley is to the team on and off the field.

"He is the glue," he said.

Armas related the story of how Bradley, after everyone has left training, can be found back in the locker room polishing his boots.

"This is a pro," Armas said. "And he does it every day."

Toronto has won five of the last six league meetings with Montreal over the last two seasons. Montreal's win last year ended a four-game TFC winning streak in the series. 


LAST SEASON: Toronto (13-13-5) finished second in the East and the league, three points behind Philadelphia in the race for the Supporters' Shield. The season ended disappointingly in a 1-0 loss to expansion Nashville SC in the first round of the playoffs.

PANDEMIC BASE: Orlando, Fla.

MEET THE NEW BOSS: Chris Armas has taken over from Greg Vanney, who is now in charge of the Los Angeles Galaxy.

REMEMBER THE NAME: Midfielder Marky Delgado is now going as Mark Delgado. 

OUT: Pablo Piatti, Laurent Ciman, Tony Gallacher.

IN: Jordan Perruzza.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: While Alejandro Pozuelo remains the straw that stirs the TFC drink, the club is still looking for another game-changer in the form of a third designated player. The club's talented youth contingent bears attention.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press