“I was thinking that it’s a bit ironic. That the great eras in Raptors and Toronto FC history might finally be coming to their ultimate demise, quietly and unceremoniously in the state of Florida, like so much of our elderly population who go down there to see out their golden years.” - Martyn Bailey
You may have heard this one before, but 2021 is panning out to be a bit of a strange year in sports (and the world over, but I digress), and in particular, when it comes to the Toronto sports landscape. For this coming year–and at least the foreseeable future—there are three Toronto professional sports teams who will call the state of Florida their home base.
While the Blue Jays have yet to get past their preseason, MLSE compatriots of TFC, the Toronto Raptors, have made home in Central Florida for several months now, and while at times it has been outright bleak, still only find themselves a few games out of an expanded playoff tournament, and are just four or five good games away from erasing the recent slide that’s plagued them.
While the sports are different in their own right, the circumstances and environment may prove to be similar enough that there may be some lessons to be learned for both fans and players of TFC: what they can expect for this upcoming season … and what they can hope to avoid.
With that in mind, here are 5 key things for fans to watch for as TFC begin their season down in Florida.
There is no place like home
The Raptors have done an admirable job of dressing up Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay as a home court, and in basketball, there’s so much more you can do with the playing surface than in soccer: the colors and logos all are matched to what the team could expect to see in Scotiabank Arena, and the music and chants are all matched to mimic a home court experience.
Yet, the Raptors still remain one game under .500 at home and don’t show any extra zip in their step when they play in Tampa.
The situation will be even worse for TFC, who will be playing in another MLS team’s home stadium, complete with their colour schemes, and logos and signage everywhere. The Orlando stadium may seem less of a home field than the pitch in Hartford did, as it at least was generally neutral.
This means that the team has to abandon the old adage (and quite frankly crutch) of: “just 1 point on the road is good enough.”
It’s going to be very hard to distinguish what is a road game from a home game, and since there is no home-field advantage, the team has to let go of old soccer norms and chase the points wherever and whenever they can get them. That means not being overly down after a home loss, but not feeling content with a single road point either.
A conservative style on the road to play for a draw just doesn’t work this year.
All-in the family
There have been a few cases of frustration and strained relationships this year around the Raptors and it makes sense. Think of having a bad day at work, or being upset with your co-workers over something. By the time you leave work, drive home, blow off some steam, spend time with your family and loved ones, have a home cooked meal, crash on your couch, relax and unwind, and get a good night’s sleep in your own bed, chances are you’re going to be ok the next day at work, right?
Whatever perceived slights existed the day before, you’re likely willing to move on and make amends.
When they’re away from their families, Toronto athletes don’t have that privilege.
Imagine that after a crappy day at work, you got showered and cleaned up, and had to go right back to dinner with your co-workers. You didn’t get to go home, but instead had to all take the bus back to the same living quarters, and because of covid protocols, if you wanted to do something fun or social, you’d have to hang out with your co-worker in their room.
Doesn’t sound like much of a break, does it?
Well, again, that’s more or less what the Raptors have gone through, and what TFC will have to go through.
There will be times in the season where tensions will run high, and it will be imperative for the leadership group of the team to find ways to break the monotony of the season in a safe manner.
Integrating family events on off days, having fun restaurants to visit, changing up the seating plan on team dinners, social nights—whatever it takes so the players get a chance to walk away from work for a few hours and not feel like they’re just trapped with their co-workers.
The kids will be alright
I’ve had this conversation with many a parent in the last year. We’re all amazed at how resilient and amendable kids are. They adapt so quickly to the changing situations around them. Sometimes, what you don’t know is the best thing for you.
The Raptors have a few young players, and because any situation would be new to them, this year’s craziness hasn’t been much of a change from the normal anyways. They’re too brand new to know what normal is.
In this case, TFC can be even better than the Raptors, as they plan to integrate several very young players into the first team. The task for head coach Chris Armas will be to find a way to keep integrating enough youthful energy and exuberance into the line-up each game that it gives the veteran players something to draw from.
Meanwhile, there are already enough professionals on TFC that the kids will have no issues with how to carry themselves and remain adherent to the COVID-19 protocols for the benefit of all.
But speaking of COVID...
There will likely be a COVID-19 case
The odds suggest this will happen. It’s happened with every league in North America who hasn’t played in a bubble. It happened to the Raptors, and unfortunately, it affected so many vital players all at once, that the team absolutely was decimated in the standings. The guys at the end of the bench just weren’t ready to step in to fill in the roles of the stars that were in quarantine.
Understanding that a basketball game is easier for one player to influence, whereas a star in soccer can be less influential, there may be days when one of the big players on TFC may not be available due to COVID-19 protocols.
Toronto FC already has a congested schedule as is, so Armas and co. need to have developed different systems and formations in advance, so that different players can be plugged into different formations and systems as the situation may call for as the season develops.
If you’re hell-bent on only running a false 9 system with Alejandro Pozuelo, and he finds himself in quarantine for a few weeks, you cant just plug Jonathan Osorio into the role and hope to keep playing without skipping a beat.
There needs to be a willingness to be adaptable and versatile in-game planning that isn’t typical for most seasons.
Take it for what it’s worth
Fans, sports in 2020 and 2021 are playing with house money.
It’s not been a normal year in any regard, but there’s something comforting of having our favourite sports teams and games on after a long day at work, or a few hours of escape from whatever real-world worries afflict us.
Just take it in this year. If they win, great, if they lose…it’s not the end of the world, we’ve fought too hard and persevered through too much for it to be.
Take it in this year with reflection: in the grand scheme of things, it’s 11 men running around on grass, chasing a ball against 11 other men. Sometimes, the ball bounces in weird ways and goes the wrong direction until it finds mesh at the wrong end of the pitch. These things happen. Just be glad that there is some level of normalcy back—and enjoy it.
The calls for “trade him, or fire him, or sign this guy” will need to be tempered this year, there’s just too many unknown variables this season.
Next year though, when we’re all vaccinated and safely back at BMO Field…oh boy, hand me the megaphone!
Enjoy fellow fans, and keep well.