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Herdman likes what he sees in TFC but says he expects more new faces to come in

Toronto FC coach John Herdman liked what he saw in a intrasquad game at training camp last Saturday.
With the Florida half of training camp nearing a close, Toronto FC opens its pre-season schedule Friday with a game against Nashville SC. Toronto FC's incoming head coach John Herdman is embraced as they sing the national anthem prior to first half MLS soccer action against the Orlando City, in Toronto, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Toronto FC coach John Herdman liked what he saw in a intrasquad game at training camp last Saturday.

Now he finally gets to see his squad in action against real opposition when it takes on Nashville SC in a pre-season friendly Friday in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Most other MLS clubs have already played at least once, with Nashville having two friendlies under its belt. Toronto, which opened camp in Florida on Jan. 16, is making its pre-season debut.

Herdman, in his first pre-season at TFC's helm, points to the lack of clubs training in Florida and his desire to get a good look at his players.

"The intrasquad (game) we had was intense as, I think any MLS game we might have played," he said in a virtual availability Wednesday. "We set it up like that to just make sure we get a full look and a full feel for the group of players that we've got in front of us."

Herdman said he has already seen players "respond to that internal competition, which has been great."

Having said that, Herdman acknowledged he hopes to get some new faces in by the time the team shifts to California for the second half of camp.

"There's good work going on behind the scenes with the front office," he said. "I know they've got some players they're talking to and some plans that are underway."

But players can be moving targets. Available one day, not the next.

The club is slated to return home after Friday's game before heading south again, this time to Santa Barbara, Calif., on Feb. 8, with pre-season games scheduled there against MLS champion Columbus Crew (Feb. 10), Real Salt Lake (Feb. 14) and Los Angeles FC (Feb. 17)

"We really want to have some new additions going into that (California) phase of development," said Herdman.

After finishing last in the league at 4-20-10 in 2023, Toronto needs help over the pitch.

Honduran midfielder Deybi Flores and Trinidad and Tobago winger/wingback Tyrese Spicer, the first overall pick in the December MLS SuperDraft, are the lone additions to date. And Spicer is still rehabbing a foot injury.

Herdman said forward Adama Diomande has joined the team in Florida after continuing his rehab in Toronto from the injury that restricted him to just 166 minutes of playing time last season. The 33-year-old Norwegian will not be ready for Friday's game, however.

Herdman promises a "real strong assessment" of the talent on hand after the Nashville friendly.

"I think we've got some decisions to make coming into Phase 2 (of camp)," he said.

Herdman said he was pleased with the team's fitness and spirit so far. The second half of camp will focus on getting the team's tactics right, he added.

The coach pointed to veteran centre back Shane O'Neill, a member of the team's leadership group, as someone who has stood out in camp.

"He's really embraced the approach and the leadership role. And I think it's rubbing off onto his game. What I've seen from him is a commitment to play, a commitment to bring a new level of aggression to his performance … He'd be the one that's really jumped off the page."

Herdman also noted improvements by six-foot-six defender Aime Mabika and singled out Canadian forward Ayo Akinola for his fitness level coming into camp.

The Nashville game will be a 120-minute affair with playing time spread around so TFC players won't see more than 60 minutes action. 

"They're going to come in ready given they've played some matches already," Herdman said of Nashville. "So it's going to be a good test for the players."

Herdman said 17-year-old centre back Lazar Stefanovic will see action against Nashville.

As for Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, Herdman said the Italian stars have "worked hard behind the scenes to keep the mood high."

"There's a good competitive vibe in the environment at the moment. With the quality they have, they can just raise the level up," he said.

Toronto opens the regular season Feb. 25 at FC Cincinnati with its home opener two games later, March 9 against Charlotte FC.

TFC learned Wednesday what lies ahead at this summer's Leagues Cup, with Toronto drawn in a group with the New York Red Bulls and Mexico's Pachuca.

The competition, which runs July 26 to Aug. 25, features 47 clubs from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. and will determine three qualifiers for the 2025 CONCACAF Champions Cup. The winner will represent the region at the FIFA Club World Cup.

Toronto failed to make it out of the group stage last year.

Also Wednesday, former Toronto midfielder Victor Vazquez signed with East Bengal FC of the Indian Super League. The 37-year-old Spaniard had two stints with TFC and was named to the MLS Best XI in 2017.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press