TORONTO, Canada—In minus-5 C weather, Toronto FC players and staff reported to BMO Training Grounds Wednesday afternoon as the club opened 2021 training camp.
Last week, Toronto FC were granted permission to open training camp early in preparation for the rescheduled Canadian Championship Final vs. Forge FC, which is expected to take place mid-to-late March. The winner of that game will go on to play Club Leon in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 that begins April 6.
With the CanChamp 2020 Final still to be played, it comes as no surprise that the Reds were allowed to open training camp earlier than other clubs. In anticipation, the majority of TFC players and staff already conducted their mandatory seven-day quarantine period, medical exams, and testing making them eligible to get going right away.
So what story lines have emerged out of the first day of camp? Let’s get you up to speed.
Toronto FC appoints 2021 coaching staff
Just before speaking to media, Toronto FC officially unveiled Chris Armas’ coaching staff.
Joining the newly-appointed head coach on Toronto’s touchline next season will be Javier Perez, Ian Russell, Ewan Sharp and Jon Conway. Goalkeeper coach Conway is the only one of the three who returns to Toronto, entering his eighth season with the club.
According to Kristian Jack, all coaches have already gone through necessary quarantine measures and have begun working with the team at camp today.
We don’t know too much about some of the newer faces as yet, so I’ll leave you with the background info that TFC’s PR team provided:
Perez, a native of Spain, most recently worked as an assistant coach with New York City FC, where he spent four seasons (2016-20). Prior to his work with NYCFC, Perez spent four years with US Soccer, serving as head coach of the U-18 Men’s National Team and assistant coach with both the U.S. Men’s National Team and U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team. He was part of the senior men’s national team’s staff at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and the U-20 squad at the 2015 U-20 FIFA World Cup in New Zealand. Before going to the U.S. in 2007, Perez spent six years at Real Madrid as a head coach for youth teams from U-9 to U-19 at the club’s foundation development center (2001-2007). Perez holds his UEFA Pro Licence, UEFA “A” Licence and a Ph.D. in Sports Science from Universidad De Leon in Spain.
Russell, a longtime MLS player and assistant coach, spent the past four seasons as head coach of USL side, Reno 1868 FC, where his side made the playoffs all four seasons, winning 64 matches during that time. Russell was named the 2020 USL Championship Coach of the Year as his side won the 2020 USL Supporters Shield. Prior to joining Reno 1868 FC, Russell was an assistant coach with the San Jose Earthquakes for eight seasons (2008-2016) and was part of the club’s 2012 Supporters’ Shield winning team. As a player, Russell spent six seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes and won two MLS Cups (2001, 2003) and one Supporters Shield title (2005). He spent his final season in 2007 with the LA Galaxy. Russell holds both his PRO Licence and “A” Licence from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Sharp joins after spending the past four seasons as a performance analyst with the New York Red Bulls. Sharp worked closely with the coaching staff and played an important role in opposition scouting, match planning, in match and post-match analysis. He also assisted the scouting department in identification and recruitment. Prior to his time with the Red Bulls, Sharp was the Director of Performance Analysis for the Northwestern University Men’s Soccer program (2015-2017). In addition, Sharp held roles with the Chicago Fire as First Team Video Assistant during the 2016 season and as an assistant coach with the Mercyhurst University Men’s Soccer program (2014-15). Sharp holds a “C” Licence from the U.S. Soccer Federation and a UEFA “C” Licence – Phase 1.
On the surface, all three of these gentlemen boast impressive resumes. They’ll certainly need it as they’re tasked with filling a big void left by former assistants Jason Bent, Dan Calichman, and Nick Theslof, all of whom joined former TFC head coach Greg Vanney in L.A.
“I am excited to have Javier, Ian and Ewan join Toronto FC to complete my staff,” said Toronto FC Head Coach Chris Armas in a press release. “I am equally pleased that Jon Conway will continue in his role with us moving forward. This group brings a diverse amount of experience and success both within MLS and outside of the league. They all have great passion and knowledge for the game, and I am looking forward to working with them.”
Eriq Zavaleta and Justin Morrow to re-sign
As a result of the ongoing global pandemic, this year, media availabilities were conducted virtually. But despite the lack of access, we still managed to learn that Toronto FC welcomed back two familiar faces on Day One of preseason with Eriq Zavaleta and Justin Morrow both taking part in festivities.
The two veterans have been out of contract since December and were free to sign with any other club. And while Armas was vague when asked about the status of either veteran—confirming they were at camp but unsure of their contractual situation—it appears that both Morrow and Zavaleta are indeed set to officially return next season, according to TSN’s Kristian Jack.
We wrote about Morrow returning last week, but Zavaleta returning comes as news. Credit to Neil Davidson, who was the first to report a reunion between the club and the centre-back Tuesday evening.
Zavaleta, 28, spent the past six seasons in Toronto since being acquired from the Seattle Sounders in 2015. The Westfield, Indiana native ranks eighth all-time for Toronto FC in appearances made for the club, playing in 136 games in all competitions. He played a key role in the treble-winning 2017 season, starting 27 of 29 matches, including three postseason games.
Since then, despite entering what’s supposed to be one’s prime years, the defender’s play declined drastically, highlighted by his sporadic use in 2020—appearing in five games and starting just three matches.
Despite the lack of game action, Zavaleta settled in towards the end of the year, managing to step up and play a role when called upon, especially when used alongside Chris Mavinga.
Originally taken 10th overall by the Seattle Sounders in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Zavaleta’s return helps shore up Toronto FC’s centre of defence, which, following the expiration of veteran Laurent Ciman’s contract, was thin, to say the least. The only natural centre-back besides starters Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez on the first-team roster was 20 year old Julian Dunn, with 2020 homegrown signing Rocco Romeo on loan in Denmark until June.
Now, Zavaleta and his 126-plus games of MLS experience will provide some much needed coverage, even if it isn’t the move many TFC fans were hoping for. In 2019, Zavaleta made almost $300,000 USD in guaranteed compensation according to the MLSPA.
With Morrow and Zavaleta’s return imminent, Ciman, Pablo Piatti, and Tony Gallacher are now the only players from last year’s roster not expected to return in 2021. Homegrown signing Jordan Perruzza remains the only addition, so far...
Armas backs Jozy Altidore; down plays transfer rumors
Things got interesting when Neil Davidson asked the new TFC head coach about the Jozy Altidore rumours that were, of course, sparked by comments from United States men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter back in January.
To his credit, Armas was quick to down play the situation.
“Listen, I don’t get caught reading those things too much,” said Armas. “We hear all the time about things on the outside, players moving. Of course, guys like Jozy, teams are probably interested. But he’s with us right now and we’re going to push forward and try to compete for championships and continue to do so.”
Armas also acknowledged the Toronto FC legend’s status with the club, and further went on to state that he wants to help Altidore reach ‘another level’ in 2021, letting Jozy know that he and the coaching staff were going to push and challenge the 31 year old.
“With Jozy, I think we all know he’s helped build this house,” said Armas. “He’s been a really important guy around here. The passion that he brings, some guys are just winners, and he’s a guy that your chances go up when Jozy’s out there ... I think he texted me he can’t wait to do all the pressing up the field that I’m going to ask him to do.”
For those wondering, Altidore, along with a few other players, are in Toronto finishing up their mandatory quarantine period and are close to joining the rest of the squad. Ayo Akinola, meanwhile, is still recovering from an offseason injury—one that forced him to miss Canada camp in January, though Armas said on Wednesday that he is close to a return.
Poll time: Are Toronto FC banking on Altidore bouncing back in 2021? Have your say.
Will Jozy Altidore start the season with Toronto FC in 2021?
This poll is closed
Yes, but gone in the summer.
Toronto FC to play friendly vs. CF Montreal?
This may have been the biggest surprise to drop on Wednesday, but it appears that CF Montreal are in the business of helping out ... Toronto FC?
“This preseason, we’re going to try and get on a schedule that really ramps things up early while balancing out players at different fitness levels,” said Armas. “There’s some challenges of opposition, so there’ll be some intrasquad (games) and there’s even a chance we can get a little friendly with Montreal before our first game.
“Montreal has been incredibly flexible saying ‘hey how can we help?’ ... that could happen, but we have to be mindful of protocol, and we’re prepared for some intrasquads for now.”
Again, the date for the Canadian Championship Final has not officially been announced as yet but we expect it to be mid-to-late March. If the Reds can find a way to safely play a friendly against Montreal ... we’ll be a lot closer to TFC footy than today’s winter weather would suggest.
Michael Bradley all business ahead of 8th season with TFC
Michael Bradley enters his eighth season with Toronto FC—seventh as captain—and the skipper was all business when speaking to media on Wednesday.
After a rare year in which Bradley struggled to stay on the field, when asked about putting 2020 behind him and his health heading into 2021, the holding midfielder made his stance clear:
“It’s been tough for everyone, man. I don’t want to hear that it’s tougher for me or tougher for TFC or tougher for Canadian teams,” Bradley replied. “I am sick of the sympathy and the excuses. We understand that it is what it is for everybody now all over the world. Nothing is simple. Nothing is straight forward. There are no easy answers, but it’s reality right now. For me, the excuses and the sympathy and the ‘well, we were away from home last year, and you know, we had to play in Hartford’ and this and that—enough.
“So yeah, I feel good. I’m really excited for the season and today was a good first day.”
Bradley appeared in a career-low 11 games for TFC last season, missing time following offseason ankle surgery and a midseason knee injury.
By his measure and for his standards, on the field, 2020 was a down year for MB4, who will look to bounce back in 2021 in the fashion he knows best: getting back to business.
Are there any other story lines you’re interested in? Let us know in the comments. We’ll be back for Day Two, tomorrow.