TORONTO — Every Toronto FC match early this season feels equal parts rehearsal and audition as the Reds enter the post-Sebastian Giovinco era.
The loss of Giovinco and Victor Vázquez in the winter transfer market combined with TFC’s defensive woes during 2018 forced coach Greg Vanney to remodel his side — a process that will require plenty more reps before it begins to look like any kind of threat to contend for trophies again. And because Vanney’s superiors are yet to seal replacements for the outgoing stars, a mix of depth signings and youngsters are being given the chance to impress in the meantime. In each and every game, Vanney is not necessarily looking for perfect performances so much as steps forward in specific areas.
Unfortunately, Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Club Atlético Independiente de la Chorrera was rendered virtually useless in terms of measuring Toronto’s progress due to the conditions it which it was played. That is not to excuse TFC’s exit from the Concacaf Champions League — the damage, after all, was done in the horrific 4-0 defeat in much warmer climes a week earlier.
It is simply to state that this match did not mean much at all when it comes to tracking the team’s development and extracting any serious conclusions.
If there was one step forward, it was that Toronto’s intensity without the ball was much improved. The Reds were far more engaged physically and won 68 duels compared to just 35 last week, with Chris Mavinga and Marky Delgado snapping into four tackles apiece and standing out on the night.
“I think the guys came out tonight and pushed the tempo of the game,” Vanney said. “They played with urgency.”
Otherwise, the game was dictated by the state of the BMO Field playing surface in -16°F weather. TFC captain Michael Bradley labeled the sand-ridden turf “embarrassing” and Vanney remarked that the only possible route to goal was through the air — mistakes like Laurent Ciman’s, which gifted Independiente its equalizer, aside.
The condition of the field was a long-running talking point during the 2018 season and Bradley was a regular critic. Last year, the problem was that the club opted not to re-lay the pitch over the winter because of a fear the new sod would not grow sufficiently for February’s Champions League home opener. The result was a field in poor condition from day one that only got worse as TFC’s run to the Champions League final progressed.
This year, the pitch was re-laid during the offseason and plans have been set to convert it to a hybrid surface, which means stitching artificial fibers into natural grass to strengthen the roots. But that cannot happen until April and in the meantime, the club’s grounds crew applied sand in a bid to hold the surface together so it is not wrecked by the time the fibers are installed.
It worked. The grass did not rip up nearly as much as it did almost instantly a year earlier. The problematic side-effect was that the sand made the field incredibly heavy and slowed ball movement to a crawl.
Club Atletico Independiente defender Gerardo Negrete, front left, and forward Gustavo Bolvar (8) embrace after the team defeated Toronto FC to win a CONCACAF Champions League soccer match in Toronto on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
“To be candid, I was a little surprised yesterday when we came out and trained on it, just at the quantity of sand that was still present on the field,” Vanney said, adding that his decision to start with two strikers instead of one and play a more direct game was only made on Monday. “It’s a challenge. We put ourselves in a big hole and today we had to have a lot more moments of quality, and to [the defense of] our guys, I think it’s difficult to have quality on that field.
“It really is difficult to have quality. Every time we play a pass, the ball slows down — that’s a benefit to the defending team. We try to speed the game up, it slows down — it’s a benefit to the defending team. We put ourselves in that position coming here down four goals, but that’s the reality of the surface.”
Bradley made clear the freezing temperature was, in his view, much less of an issue than the turf.
“The field is embarrassing,” Bradley said. “Nobody wants to talk about it anymore. We want to play. We want to step out onto the field in our stadium, in front of our fans and have a field that you feel like you can play football on, that you can enjoy trying to play football on (and) use the stadium, use the crowd, use the atmosphere, everything, to our advantage.
“Unfortunately, there has been a lot of days recently where the field has just played a big factor. But hopefully, if there’s one positive of not going on in this tournament, it’s that over this next stretch [there’s] a few less games on the field. Obviously, the hybrid stitching will come in April and hopefully that combined with a few less games and some good weather means we can get over the hump and this is ultimately something that we’re never talking about.
“Because, again, nobody wants to talk about it.”