Toronto FC is taking shape in the Florida heat — a new shape under new coach Chris Armas.
While there have been few personnel changes from the team that finished runner-up in the regular season last year, Armas is remaking the MLS team to his liking since succeeding Greg Vanney in January.
The 48-year-old Armas is promising a more aggressive, pressing game. He leads by example, energy pumping through Zoom calls like a waterfall.
Armas' intensity is benign, however. He's a personable guy whose light just shines very bright.
"When Chris came in, there was a sense of 'Ready to get to work,'" said veteran forward Patrick Mullins. "He's very engaging, whether it's walking in the hallway or on the training pitch or in the video room. He has a way of drawing people toward him."
Armas, a former elite defensive midfielder who won 66 caps for the U.S. national team, is all about energy and connection.
"He exudes that in who he is," said Mullins. "And that's someone when he walks in the room or on the training pitch, there's a presence — that has me really looking forward to what we can do this year."
Midfielder Nick DeLeon also likes what he sees.
"He's intense, I'll say that. He's very intense. He know what he wants out of his group. And he's really personable."
"The best way I can describe it is the first time I talked to him in the off-season, he gave me a call and within one minute I was almost like spilling my guts to him. It was so weird," DeLeon added. "He just had like a knack to just make you feel at ease. So as a man he's incredible. And as a coach, he's very intense."
Armas reports pre-season in Orlando is going well.
"We feel like we're gaining momentum. There's a good rhythm to what we're doing every day," he said Wednesday.
Armas says the team is in its "implementation phase." He wants his side to play faster and more vertical, with short, quick combinations. And if it loses the ball, it fights to get it back.
He says it's coming together under the Florida sun.
"It's not so easy to play with the energy and intensity all the time in this heat and humidity but there's a big commitment to what we're doing," he said.
Toronto defeated Fort Lauderdale FC, Inter Miami's USL side, 3-0 in a training match last Saturday with Mullins, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo scoring. On Thursday, the team takes on Columbus Crew SC in a friendly.
While Armas saw things he liked in the weekend game, he says there is more work to do.
Toronto faces an uphill battle in terms of both training and fitness ahead of the April 7 first leg of its Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 game against Mexico's Club Leon.
Armas says some players are dealing with a few "minor" injuries, but nothing major.
"We'll be at full strength soon. But we'll go into the first leg with a couple of guys out."
He declined to name names.
DeLeon knows the challenge that awaits.
"I know going into that game, it's definitely not going to be easy," said the midfielder. "But no Champions League, even when you're fit, is ever easy … It's just about working for that guy next to you. We know we have to do it together."
Armas says he wants his team to use heat to its advantage, cranking up the speed of the game.
"We still intend to put teams in fast games. And we can play faster than the opposition. Then we can play faster than the opposition in the heat."
Armas wants his team to control the game, with or without the ball, pointing to the likes of Bayern Munich's Thomas Mueller and Manchester City's Raheem Sterling.
"Those guys are superstars. And they understand what part of the field they want to control or not let the opposition be part of or build attacks … We'll have a clear understanding — we're working on it every day in different parts of the field — what is important, which parts of the field require what.
"But no matter what we do, it's still about controlling the game when we don't have the ball, by controlling spaces. And it's still about taking time and space away. Our preferred (style) is all-out pressing. We like to make (the) opposition uncomfortable."
The regular season kicks off April 17 against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. TFC will be based in Florida until border restrictions are loosened.
"The boys are up for it, let me tell you," said Armas. "What a group of guys, pushing every day. They're committing to something different that we're throwing at them. And I can see that they love the energy, they love the intensity, they love playing fast."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press