Justin Morrow is confident. Despite all the obstacles, and the more than two months since last playing a match, the TFC defender is starting to sense that slowly, quietly, the climate is shifting, and the rain will eventually return to the drought stricken MLS.
“It feels good to touch a ball again,” Morrow said of the TFC-sanctioned individual training. “It’s tough being a professional athlete trying to be fit at home. The club’s done an incredible job of getting equipment out to us, but without space, it’s difficult to stay on top of what we need to do.”
On May 10, Ontario health authorities cleared Toronto FC’s return to voluntary individual player workouts outdoors at the BMO Training Ground. MLS established strict guidelines to ensure player safeness, which are enforced by the team’s training staff.
The organization, meanwhile, has mandated a meticulous blueprint for players to practice on the actual field with minimal staff or player-to-player interaction. According to Morrow, there are two fields split into quadrants, up to eight players present in total, with a coach per field who offers them suggestions from a distance.
“It’s strange to talk to your teammates from six, ten feet away with a mask on,” Morrow said. “We have staggered times that we’re supposed to be there; it’s just nice to see people’s faces. I was on the field with Tsubasa [Endoh], Ayo [Akinola], Rocco [Romeo], and Noble [Okello]. Everyone has a smile on their face. Everyone wants to play, everyone’s happy.”
Toronto FC has an app that gives every player full instructions on what their day’s workout will include and what skills to work on. Because of the safety and distancing measures, however, players have to utilize only what they themselves bring—their own ball, their own cones.
“All the protocol we have had to go through is very good. Everyone has thought through this process trying to keep us very safe. We have to complete a questionnaire before we leave the house, we show up already dressed in the clothes we are going to train in, we get a temperature check as soon as we’re on site.”
This is certainly a familiar story all around the league as teams try to maintain the fitness of their players. Rumours of a potential MLS tournament in Orlando has surely worked to galvanize organizations and players to stay in gear, even with little official portents.
“They are trying to get back to playing as soon as possible,” Morrow said of the prospective tournament. “They are also trying to limit the risk to the players. Going to somewhere like Orlando, a central location, that’s the best way to limit the risk right now. I would feel comfortable playing in a situation like that, I would just hope that there is time to really nail down the protocol.”
While a return to play is the outcome everyone wants, for fans, winning is just as vital. Many changes were made to balance TFC before the start of the season and shape the team into a serious contender. The pre-season losses of Michael Bradley and Pablo Piatti were early barbs for the organization, and while all this borrowed time has given those two allowance to recuperate, the lack of actual play casts them, and the entire squad in an unknown light.
But Morrow, for his part, is not concerned. Far from it, he sees the last two months only as a delay of the inevitable.
“I feel very confident in our team. Coming off of last year, adding new pieces, having grown together, going through some challenges, that made us stronger. Our talent level is strong, our mentality is strong.”
While a return to play might be a possibility, the solution may not be a perfect one either; if the MLS’ Orlando plan goes through, the compromise will be the lack of home games for teams like Toronto FC.
“It’ll be difficult. The whole experience at BMO, the heart and soul is the fans and the passion that they bring. It will be tough not to play in front of them.”
And yet, even about that potential compromise, Morrow was lighthearted.
“But I do want to play games this year. I’m not getting any younger. I’d like to get in some games while my legs are still working.”