Toronto FC's representatives - a combination of players from TFC II and the top academy side, TFC III - at the 69th Viareggio Cup kick off on Monday morning at 10am (3pm local time) with a match against SS Maceratese.
Before the team set off for Italy last week, WTR caught up with Danny Dichio, who will coach the newly renamed TFC III this season and take charge for the tournament.
“They're really excited,” said Dichio of his group from the airport, awaiting departure. “We've got a vast range of age groups going. We thought that this is the group with the most potential. We've got players down from TFC II that are still young enough to travel and then we've got some really young boys with good potential from our Under-17 group. We've blended them together and they're all as excited as each other.”
“They can't wait to get over there, get a feel for it,” continued Dichio. “They're really going to enjoy it. It's obviously a really prestigious tournament, but I don't think they realize just how prestigious it is... the media attention and how the whole city shuts down for this tournament and carnival in the Viareggio.”
Though the experience alone is worth the trip, TFC III have no intention of merely being happy to be there.
“Number one: this is going to build long lasting memories for every single one of them as individuals,” Dichio explained. “Whether they progress or this is as high they play, this is an experience that they're going to carry with them throughout their life. They must grasp it, take the opportunity and enjoy their time, but show why they've been picked. We're going over there to compete, not just as the team from North America, as mascots.”
Having departed on Wednesday on a lengthy journey to their destination, TFC III got in a training session on Friday before a final friendly against LIAC New York on Saturday led them into Monday's opener.
TFC III won that friendly 5-1, with Shaan Hundal scoring a hat-trick after new addition Matthew Srbely nabbed the first. Robert Boskovic added another. Liam Fraser, who will captain the side at the tournament picked up a pair of assists on Hundal strikes.
Clearly, the boys are ready for the challenge, but when the game comes, it will fall on Dichio and his coaching staff - which includes another former Red, Chris Pozniak - to keep the side level-headed and focused.
“You have to be clever, manage the situation,” said Dichio. “You don't want the players too hyped, too excited where they forget the actual tactical, technical parts of the game, or managing their emotions. You have to keep them level-headed, let them experience it with the excitement we spoke about, but also remember we're here for a reason, to compete.”
Making that task all the more challenging is that though this world is new for TFC III, for many of their opponents it is just another day at the office.
“We're playing against some very good teams with very players, who have played in these tournaments many times,” cautioned Dichio. “This is a whole new world for [the TFC] players.”
The message was driven home by TFC head coach Greg Vanney, who spoke to the group before they left the Kia Training Ground.
Recounted Dichio: “Greg came in and spoke to the group, wished us well, but also reiterated, ‘don't be surprised that you are going to be near the level, but you [still] have to earn the right to compete [there]’.”
On Tuesday, Vanney touched on the value of his club taking part in such a prestigious event. “It's extremely valuable on field, for the mentality, the gauge of 'where am I?' in relationship to the world's game, not just in Canada or North America,” he said. “It's always enlightening and motivating for players to have these opportunities.
“They'll also see players that are their age, organized teams, in a unique atmosphere, an international competition. They're always positive experiences, no matter how it goes.
“My hope for that group is that we go with real pride and belief in what we're capable of doing. Regardless of whether it's Juventus across, or anybody else, we need to go out and compete, be confident, not just roll over because it's Juventus; make them figure out who we are. Approach with that confidence and belief and go for it. No sense going and hiding, let's go out there and attack.”
Not only are the players facing a daunting test, drawn as they are in a group that includes Juventus, but for the young coaches it too will offer a chance to square off against some of their peers.
“It's challenging,” admitted Dichio. “But I go back to how the players are feeling... excitement. It's exactly the same for us as coaches. We're excited to pit ourselves against coaches in Europe.
“Look at Juventus, who have Fabio Grosso as head coach... he's a World Cup winner. When you have someone like that as opposition coach, pitting your wits against him, that's going to be a valuable experience for us as well. For the players, it's a nice incentive for them to show they can compete, go toe-to-toe with these other players, and we might be able to surprise a few players as well.”
With the unique experience itself being so valuable in terms of development alone, Dichio saw no point in setting benchmarks, seeing opportunity in both wins and losses.
“We don't set initial goals,” said Dichio. “We want to come here, enjoy the occasion. [You do that] by being successful.
“We spoke about it as a staff and said this is a win-win situation. If we do well, progress in the tournament, it's a big win to say that we're doing our training, development in the correct manner. If we come out of here and we're very far off the level, it's a win for us as well because we've gauged that our boys are not at the level yet and we need to do a lot more work.
“We'll need to improve them in different areas – technically, tactically, even off the field as well, in nutrition, strength and conditioning, endurance. There's all kind of stats we can bring back to show where we're really at as a club in North America.”
Following today's match, TFC II will meet Juventus on March 15 and Dukla Prague on March 18.
In late breaking news, Liam Fraser was named captain of the side earlier this morning. WTR caught up with the 19-year old midfielder on Wednesday from the airport as well. That interview and the recap of today's action should be up tomorrow morning.