Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney, a good judge of his team, liked what he saw in training this week at the MLS is Back Tournament.
It helped that it rained Friday morning in Florida, making for cool conditions.
"We trained relatively light, did some things tactically and then the guys just had some fun," said Vanney. "We did a finishing game. There was a lot of laughing, guys were relaxed a little bit and settled in.
"For me that was really kind of a great moment in an environment that at times can feel a little bit tense and obviously very sterile ... It was nice for guys to just kind of let their guard down for a little bit out on the soccer field and just enjoy themselves. Because that's what it's all about in many ways.
"So I feel good with where we're at. I think guys are getting excited to play."
Toronto opens the World Cup-style tournament Sunday morning against D.C. United. New England defeated Montreal 1-0 in the first Group C game.
Striker Jozy Altidore, always willing to share, took to social media Saturday to dump on the kickoff time.
"These 9 a.m. games are not the way. Way too hot out here for all that," he tweeted.
The forecast calls for 28 C at kickoff, feeling like 32 C (rising to 30 C and 37 C at 11 a.m.) at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando.
It's the first game for Toronto since a 1-0 home win over New York City FC on March 7. The league ground to a halt five days later due to COVID-19.
Since then, the players suffered through the pandemic lockdown before gradually resuming training — first individually, then in small groups and finally as a full team.
The world has changed in the interim, with the death of George Floyd triggering a worldwide response to racism and police brutality.
Toronto has helped lead the way on the MLS front, will fullback Justin Morrow executive director of the newly former Black Players for Change group. Altidore, Richie Laryea and the injured Ifunanyachi Achara are among the TFC players who have spoken out eloquently.
GM Ali Curtis has also played a significant role behind the scenes while assistant coach Jason Bent's voice also carries weight.
"It'll be difficult to be playing these games with everything that's happened but I'll be honoured to be out there as always representing Toronto, which is such a great city, and I've felt incredible support from them," said Morrow.
On the field, Toronto FC fans are looking forward to a first glimpse of winger Pablo Piatti, the Argentine designated player whose start to the season was delayed by a hamstring injury.
The combination of Piatti and Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo could be mouth-watering.
For Michael Bradley, Sunday will mark his first action since Nov. 10 when he injured his ankle in the MLS Cup final loss in Seattle. The 32-year-old skipper underwent surgery in January after the ankle failed to respond to rehab.
Altidore may well still be a work in progress, however. The burly U.S. international forward spent most of the lockdown at his Florida home and had to self-quarantine, training on his own, upon returning to Toronto.
With Toronto scheduled to play again Wednesday, against Montreal, Vanney is likely to dig deep into his roster.
There is plenty to choose from. Toronto retained 17 of the 18 players that dressed for the MLS Cup final, missing only French winger Nicolas Benezet, now with Colorado.
The reserves are young, however. Ten members of Toronto's tournament roster are 22 or younger.
While all 24 remaining teams at the tournament — FC Dallas and Nashville SC were forced to withdraw after COVID-19 ripped through their rosters — remain works in progress given lack of serious preparation time, Toronto is a known quantity.
"You know you're going to get quality," said D.C. United coach Ben Olsen. "And you know you're going to get a team that, in some ways, is less a work in progress because of the lack of turnover that that team has had over the last few years.
"There's a lot of returning players and a lot of returning players of quality. So that part is an exciting challenge for our group."
D.C. United also remembers the 5-1 first-round playoff loss to Toronto last season. After sending the game to overtime with a stoppage-time equalizer, Olsen's team conceded four goals in rapid fashion at BMO Field.
"Not that we need any extra motivation but we certainly wouldn't mind getting back at them," said Olsen.
D.C. United says veteran playmaker Federico Higuain, who signed in March as a free agent after eight seasons with Columbus, is ready to play after recovering from knee surgery.
Peruvian international midfielder Edison Flores is also one to watch.
"He's a special player," said Olsen. "He's exciting, he's dynamic, he can score, he can provide. He will help us in the way we attack.
"Now the trick is with him is we got to find him the ball, because when he has the ball at his feet good things happen and he makes real plays."
That vision will be welcome to a team that lost offensive weapons up front with the departure of Wayne Rooney, Lucas (Titi) Rodriguez and Luciano (Lucho) Acosta.
Teams will play three group games at the tournament, which will count in the regular-season standings, with the top two from each of the six pools plus the four best third-place finishes advance to the knockout round of 16.
Toronto went 1-0-1 in the first two games of the season while D.C. United was 1-1-0.
Being in a bubble is nothing new to Toronto, thanks to trips to hostile territory in the CONCACAF Champions League — albeit without the threat of COVID-10.
"It wasn't like we were getting out of the hotel much when we were in some of those places in Mexico," said Bradley. "None of this fazes us."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2020.
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