If you blink you might’ve missed it. Or perhaps it’s because none of the matches are streamed or televised. But regardless, Toronto FC are more than half way through their preseason with four games in the books.
The Reds have picked up three wins in four friendlies, with their most recent victory coming against Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s L.A. Galaxy (2-1) over the weekend. Here are the highlights from Saturday’s contest (the only one of the four matches that has highlights).
Since fans have been limited to essentially that highlight package and a few #TFCLive updates of 280 characters or less, it’s difficult for the casual supporter to make sense of any of the story lines that are potentially developing out of camp.
So with insight from everything that I know, here’s five things that I noticed from Toronto FC’s first four games of the 2020 MLS preseason.
"Being a kid from Toronto, and playing for your hometown, occupying what I think is the most important position in football [...], that's what excites me and kind of gets me up in the morning."— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) January 21, 2020
( : @Shuttersworth_ ) | #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/ZG2QYNi3HG
Obviously, one of the biggest splashes out of Toronto FC’s training camp came on opening day when general manager Ali Curtis broke the news that captain Michael Bradley would be sidelined for approximately four months following surgery on his right ankle.
Not only is Bradley the Reds’ leader off the field, he’s also been TFC’s marshal on the field for the past five seasons, dominating arguably the most important part of the pitch game-in and game-out.
As such, the story line of course, has followed: how would TFC fill that void?
All signs have since pointed to Canadian international Liam Fraser, a talented holding midfielder whose minutes have been limited thanks to the presence of Bradley. Fraser, 21, started three of the TFC’s four preseason matches so far (with his only day off coming against UC Irvine as most of the Reds’ reserves played that day).
It’s a big role for Fraser to fill, but early on, it looks like the Toronto-native is up to the challenge. Expect him to slot into Bradley’s spot on opening day.
I wrote 2000 words about how this was the most likely possibility prior to camp, so I’ll keep this one short. Despite his controversial remarks about how the club handled Bradley’s injury, it appears that Jozy Altidore will be the one keeping his countryman’s armband warm when the Reds take the field on Feb. 29 in San Jose.
Altidore, who has apparently looked very good early on, leads by example at training and isn’t afraid to hold his club accountable for his teammates. As a result, coach Greg Vanney has rewarded his designated player with captaincy duties so far in preseason.
ACHARA MAKING NOISE
#TFCLive 2020 first-round pick Ifunanyachi Achara scored a nice chip against LAFC yesterday.— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) February 13, 2020
Achara fell to No. 25 in the Draft after appearing in just 15 games last year due to injury. A 2019 NCAA Champ with Georgetown, TFC may have a good one here pic.twitter.com/dJqNIH04J3
Three goals in three appearances: like lightning in a bottle, Toronto FC first-round pick Ifunanyachi Achara is making it very difficult for the Reds not to sign their 2020 MLS SuperDraft pick.
Lining up mostly on the wing, the 22-year-old native of Nigeria has been turning heads in training camp.
“Achara has been a very interesting addition since he arrived,” Vanney told Toronto FC. “We missed him a little bit in Florida because he got sick, but since he’s been here he’s fit in well.”
“He’s a smart player, moves nicely with the ball, he’s not afraid of any situations, got himself in transition today and a cheeky little finish there at the end, so showing a lot of confidence and composure,” he listed. “He’s been a nice addition to the group and we’ll see as we continue to progress through these games what kind of role we can play for us going forward.”
Drafted at No. 25 overall, Achara was one of four players chosen by TFC in the opening two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft. While it was unlikely at the time that the Reds could find a player (or two) that could make a difference at the first-team level this year via the 2020 draft, it appears that Achara—who missed a lot of time in college due to injury—may actually end up raising a few eyebrows before the year is out. Keep an eye on this story line.
PIATTI LOAD MANAGEMENT UPDATE
When will we finally see Toronto FC’s new designated player Pablo Piatti?
According to coach Vanney, it looks like the 30-year-old may be ready to see game action this week as the Reds have two more friendlies remaining on Wednesday and Saturday.
Toronto FC are very serious about managing Piatti’s minutes, who of course is coming off an ACL injury which cost him the better part of his 2019 season. We were told on a conference call by Bill Manning that the goal is for the club to have Piatti play about 70 per cent of the season with the ultimate goal of having the Argentinian ready and healthy for the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Moreover, reading into Vanney’s words here, it sounds as though Piatti may be available off the bench to start the year, which shouldn’t too surprising given the club’s cautious approach. Regardless, expect to have Pablo Piatti updates later this week.
This is my candidate for Toronto FC breakout player of the season in 2020.
After joining the club with somewhat high expectations as a TAM-signing in late-July, 23-year-old Erickson Gallardo failed to cement his place in the Reds’ Starting XI in 2019, struggling to quickly adapt to the pace of play in MLS at a crucial time of the year. After picking up an injury, Gallardo was displaced by Tsubasa Endoh on the wing—whose consistent level of play leading up to the playoffs kept Gallardo out of Vanney’s lineup for the rest of the season.
This year, however, appears to be a bit different of a story. Vanney, who has mentioned that he is looking forward to what Gallardo will add to his side in 2020, opted to start the winger down the right flank in the Reds’ first preseason contest of the year against the Colorado Rapids, a move that paid immediate dividends as TFC’s No. 9 found the back of the net just minutes into the contest.
Not to be mistaken for the Lamborghini, Gallardo has speed to burn. There were times last year where he would make a great run in an attempt to get behind the opposition’s defence, but the ball from his new teammates would come a half-second or a second too late. With a full training camp on top of the latter half of last season to get familiar with one another, I’m expecting to see a lot more from the talented Venezuelan attacker.
Somewhat like Piatti, Gallardo also plays a very north-south style of play but still possesses the ability—and quality—to read the game inbetween the lines. I’d be very intrigued about the possibility of those two players flanking an attack that is spearheaded by Altidore.
Stay tuned, as we’ll have more of your updates from #TFCLive camp as the Reds get set to open the season in 11 days!