By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – Life in Canada isn’t any more complicated than life in the United States at the moment, with an ongoing global pandemic limiting social interaction, travel, and the economy. Well, unless you happen to play professional sports.
In addition to the concerns everyone else is dealing with, players from Major League Soccer’s three clubs based north of the border face another protracted period away from home. They’ll also have the added pressure to win soccer games.
Last season, all three Canadian clubs moved south for the “return to play” portion of the MLS calendar at alternative sites in the United States. Toronto FC played at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Montreal played their home games at Red Bull Arena. The Vancouver Whitecaps, the lone West Coast team in the bunch, set up shop in Oregon and played at Providence Park in Portland.
Canada’s travel restrictions that made that uncomfortable and anti-competitive reality necessary are still in place. As MLS moves towards an April 16 kickoff for the 2021 season, the Canadian clubs are again preparing to play away from home, with no clear idea when their wandering will be over. The NHL had enough teams to create a Canadian division but now faces a playoff issue. The NBA’s Raptors relocated to Tampa. Toronto’s Major League Baseball team is starting the season across the bay at their spring training facility in Dunedin.
Toronto FC, a club that challenged for the Supporters’ Shield last season despite the strange conditions, will play its games in Orlando. Montreal will serve its time further downstate, sharing Inter Miami’s Fort Lauderdale stadium with the second-year MLS club. Vancouver will share Real Salt Lake’s facilities.
For the two Eastern Conference clubs in Florida, there’s the added adjustment of new coaches. Toronto knew it would be entering the new season with a new boss back in December when Greg Vanney announced his resignation after seven seasons. They hired former Red Bulls coach Chris Armas. CF Montreal learned it would need a new coach just two weeks ago when Thierry Henry stepped down for family reasons.
Henry specifically cited the long stint in the United States and the protracted absence from his London-based children as factors in his decision. The upshot was that it required CF Montreal to replace him and to do it quickly with preseason training mere days from starting.
The club’s choice was longtime assistant Wilfried Nancy. Nancy’s promotion is a good story after his years of service in Montreal, but his task for 2021 will be exceedingly difficult.
Armas and Nancy now face the regular strain of needing to turn their tactical ideas into workable solutions. For now, they’ll be doing it with no home field advantage at all. The leadership on their squads know that even an empty BMO Field and Stade Saputo feel like home. So do their training facilities and, you know, the places where they actually live.
Both squads have American contingents now playing full-time back in their home country. Toronto is among the most successful MLS teams of the last five years, specifically because of the steady contributions from the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
Those two will need to have strong years if Toronto is again going to contend in the East. Armas should bring more pressing, a hallmark from his Red Bull era. Toronto GM Ali Curtis is also a former Red Bull exec, making that an easy assumption. All involved will also recognize that it’s possible to win games by simply leaving a good thing alone.
Health is a factor for both of the experienced Americans. Michael Bradley’s surgery in January of 2020 would have kept him out for much of the first half of the season if not for the pandemic shut down just two weeks into the campaign. Instead, Bradley returned in time to play half of Toronto’s 24 games. He helped to push the Reds to the final day with a chance at a trophy.
Altidore made appearances in 13 games while dealing with a string of injuries, collecting just over 700 minutes across those matches. His two goals in 2020 was the lowest output of his run in Toronto. That meant other scoring options had to step up.
One of those was Ayo Akinola, a Canadian-American still in the process of selecting a national team. Last season Akinola burst onto the scene with an excellent showing at the MLS Is Back tournament in Altidore’s absence. He’s likely to get plenty of chances at the top of the Toronto attack. USMNT fans hope the one-two punch of Altidore and Akinola with TFC previews a similar dynamic with the Red, White, & Blue.
Toronto is also the club home of Marky Delgado, a two-way midfielder with six USMNT caps. The 25-year-old needs a strong start to the season to end up in USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s plans. That highlights the bizarre situation Toronto is in. Playing well early means the potential to lose a player like Delgado to national team duty.
CF Montreal’s roster is much less rich in American talent than Toronto’s. There are just three USMNT-eligible players with CF Montreal in 2021, pending further roster moves ahead of the campaign: Erik Hurtado, Mason Toye, and Djordje Mihailovic.
Milhailovic is bound to get the lion’s share of the attention and justifiably so. CF Montreal sent a veritable king’s ransom to Chicago for the 22-year-old midfielder in December. The Fire received $800,000 in general allocation money spread over two years, with a potential to earn an additional $200,000 if Mihailovic meets certain performance metrics.
Teams only spend that much MLS money if they intend to make the player in question the centerpiece of their team. Mihailovic has the talent to be the creative midfielder force Montreal wants him to be. It’s now up to Nancy to turn him into that player. At the time of the trade, Henry was still the Montreal boss. It stood to reason that it was he who helped decide to acquire Mihailovic. With Henry gone, the American’s status as the chosen one is less clear.
To complicate his transition into a new role with a new team, Mihailovic will miss the rest of March’s training camp time with Montreal because of the CONCACAF Qualifying tournament in Mexico. Mihailovic earned a call from U23 head coach Jason Kreis for the quest to qualify the United States for an Olympic men’s soccer tournament for the first time since 2008.
For all of the Canadian contingent, this won’t be easy. For Toronto and Montreal, it’s a series of potential issues not entirely in their control.
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Photo by Mike Lawrence – ISIPhotos.com