Preview season is an awkward time of year.
Everyone is busy trying to read the tea leaves, decipher offseason machinations, comparing Team A to Team B, looking for insights into how the upcoming campaign will play out.
New signings and old faces, coaching changes and those further up in organizations, bizarre trades and mysterious draft picks.
There is so much up in the air it can be difficult to surmise, especially in MLS where teams can rise and fall from one season to the next.
It's not only awkward, but also potentially misleading.
Results in preseason are rarely predictive. The team that looks a world beater a month before the season may not be the one that gets off to a fast start, never mind what it implies for their form come the crucial fall playoff push.
The same holds true for Toronto FC, who are currently down in Florida for their second training stint in more amenable climes.
After reporting for fitness testing in Toronto, TFC departed for California, where they played a trio of matches against lower-league opposition.
In their first match on February 2 they beat Ventura County Fusion by a 3-0 scoreline, with Sebastian Giovinco opening the scoring, followed by a brace from Mo Babouli.
They followed that up on February 4 with another 3-0 victory, this time over San Diego State University, on the strength of a Jordan Hamilton brace, while trialist Aikim Andrews added the third.
TFC would close out their SoCal adventure a day later with a surprise defeat, falling 2-1 to Cal State Fullerton. Giovinco again opened the scoring, but a Cal State penalty and a strike in the third half of play – yes, you read that correctly – proved decisive.
That was a result that could be seen as a cause for concern by those desperate for insight. Not only did Toronto lose to a college team, but reportedly that old nemesis – dominating play only to struggle to score – reared its head once more.
But to place too much emphasis on such a result would be to fall victim to prognostication with little evidence. Not only were those matches unseen, aside from the occasional goal clip, and weird – as the three halves and mass substitutions exemplify – but they were also clearly not about results.
Their intent was the gradual building of match fitness and player evaluation.
The first phase of preseason consists not only of fitness testing, to establish baselines for the upcoming season, but also to see the players acclimate to pushing themselves after an, albeit brief, offseason.
Add in that between draft picks, trialists, and TFC II and III prospects the coaching staff needed data to make roster decisions, and the results in those matches can scarcely be seen as indicative of anything.
Head coach Greg Vanney, in his examination, found some value in the shock result.
“Eighth day straight [of] training, sometimes double days... we came in that last game, guys were tired,” said Vanney last Wednesday. “They're looking across and their opposition was another college team – no disrespect to them – but there just wasn't the motivation within the group. Everything was just a little too slow. We were a little too casual, mostly in front of the goal and, to their credit, they did a good job of being disciplined, keeping numbers, surviving for a long time.”
Continued Vanney: “It was good, because it was a wake-up call that you don't get to just show up. Even if you're tired, you've got to push through it. Just because we went to a final doesn't mean you get to win every game. I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that we had that result - it's a nice message to the group. They were biting each other a bit at the end for not having won that game.”
All that is not to say that there was nothing instructive, merely that drawing definitive conclusions is a fool's errand.
Giovinco can clearly still score, while Babouli getting a taste for goal and Hamilton picking up where he left off when last he featured can only be helpful. This will be an interesting season for Hamilton. Still, almost unbelievably, just 20 years old – and looking bigger than he did last year (he may still be growing), he proved he could play at this level last year and he will get chances to do the same this.
The next phase of preseason is a continuation of the fitness building, with an increased eye on tactical game planning and seeing how new combinations of players function, while continuing to build on the identity that the core has established over the past two seasons.
This is where new players, specifically Chris Mavinga, Sergio Camargo, and a few of the TFC II players on the cusp of signing for the first team will be tested in a proper lineup, seeing how well they mesh with their teammates.
Most crucially for forecasting, the level of competition ratchets up a notch in Florida.
The side played their first match on Wednesday, defeating NASL side Miami FC by a 6-1 scoreline with Giovinco netting twice, Justin Morrow continuing his prodigious production and Benoit Cheyrou showing his class. Andrews grabbed another, while Raheem Edwards added his first, boosting the prospect that one or both will be with the first team come March 4.
TFC has three more matches over the next two weeks (they were due to play the University of Central Florida on Friday, but the match was cancelled shortly before it was set to kickoff), before facing a trio of MLS sides in the build up to the day formerly known as First Kick.
On Sunday, February 19 the Reds face Orlando City SC, the following Wednesday they take on expansion side Minnesota United FC, before concluding preseason on Saturday, February 25 against the Chicago Fire.
It remains to be seen whether any of these matches will be streamed, another limiting factor when it comes to truly garnering insights into the team.
But as the first match in Salt Lake approaches, more and more can be gleaned from these games.
Expect to see lineups and substitution patterns that more accurately foreshadow what the regular season will bring. There will still be considerations made for fitness evolution, player evaluation, and experimentation, but the focus will narrow with an eye on points soon being on the table.
This is a time of year that though many want answers, there lie only questions.
Does TFC continue with the three-man back-line that served them so well late last year? Does Mavinga work his way into the starting XI, and at whose expense? What shape and composition does the midfield take? Is there a way to work Tosaint Ricketts in the lineup, perhaps as part of that three-headed beast that so terrorized opponents in rare glimpses in 2016?
Is there a hangover from the MLS Cup defeat? Does the short offseason play a role with the usual MLS grind resetting? Was it wise to look to consistency over a shake up as the primary winter enhancement?
In many ways those are questions that can only be answered come next December. A whole season lies ahead - embrace and enjoy the unknown. The possibility is what it's all about, anyways.
Please leave your questions and comments in the section below and the ever-ready WTR staff will respond in kind.