Herdman likes what he sees as TFC camp opens but says roster is a work in progress
Toronto FC coach John Herdman says his players have shown up for training camp in top shape, bettering required standards, but acknowledged the roster is still a work in progress.
"The players have really put a shift in over the off-season," said the former Canada coach, who took over the underperforming MLS club on Oct. 1.
After undergoing weekend medicals and other fitness tests, the team is scheduled to fly to Florida on Tuesday to begin on-field training in Palm Beach. The forecast calls for a high of 28 Celsius with scattered thunderstorms there Tuesday, compared to minus-11 (feeling like minus-19) in Toronto.
Herdman says he is taking just 28 players to Florida, opting to work with an intimate group.
"We're not a championship team where we're exploring at the fringes," said Herdman. "We really are resetting and starting again … But the roster build is ongoing. It's been a slow process but hopefully things will start heating up in the next two weeks."
After a dismal 4-20-10 season that saw the team fire head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley in late June, there are questions through the roster.
While goal looks set with Luka Gavran and Greg Ranjitsingh behind veteran No. 1 Sean Johnson, the defence and midfield are thin. Herdman also has to settle on a centre forward to operate between Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.
Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, the longest-serving player on the team, is optimistic better days lie ahead.
"I feel like we have a big opportunity to change the narrative here from the last few years," Osorio said. "Doing that is going to be difficult. We know the journey is a tough climb but we're all willing to take it."
Herdman has installed Osorio and the Italians in his leadership group, along with Johnson and defender Shane O'Neill. While he has decided on a captain, he was not yet prepared to announce who.
Osorio and Insigne both saw time as captain last year while longtime skipper Michael Bradley was injured.
The departure of Michael and his father Bob means one "elephant in the room" is gone, given the relationship between captain and coach.
"Two big personalities who were father and son," said Herdman, adding that the family ties made for "a bit of a recipe for disaster" when it came to trust in the locker room
And while Herdman said Insigne and Bernardeschi are "top-level footballers" committed to the TFC cause, he suggested everyone has a price.
"If a top team in the world came in at the right price, this an industry, it's a business. So I'd expect that for any of my players."
Given their pay — Insigne ranked second at US$15.4 million behind Lionel Messi's US$20.5 million in MLS pay last season while Bernardeschi was fifth at US$6.3 million — and performance last season, a bumper offer from elsewhere seems unlikely.
Seven players from last year's first-team roster have left already, including Michael Bradley who retired after 10 seasons with the club to start a coaching career elsewhere. Also departed are goalkeeper Tomas Romero, defenders Cristian Gutierrez and Themi Antonoglou, midfielders Franco Ibarra and Victor Vazquez and forward C.J. Sapong.
So far the only off-season signing is Honduran defensive midfielder Debyi Flores, expected to step in for Bradley.
"There's got to be some level of movement before we can seriously bring players in," Herdman said. "I think there's some (salary) cap realities."
Toronto took Trinidad forward Tyrese Spicer with the first overall pick of the MLS SuperDraft. The 23-year-old forward from Lipscomb University is expected to play on the wing or at wingback for TFC.
While Herdman noted the jump between NCAA ranks and the pros, he expects Spicer to add much-needed pace to the flanks.
TFC also drafted Indiana defender Joey Maher (30th overall) and midfielder Patrick McDonald (59th), both from Indiana, and Stanford midfielder Fletcher Bank (85th). The club says McDonald and Bank have opted to return to school.
Charlie Sharp, taken in the third round of the 2023 draft (61st overall), is in camp. Sharp elected to return to Western Michigan last season, becoming a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist after scoring 19 goals, including, and eight assists for the Broncos.
The squad is due to play a friendly with Nashville SC on Feb. 2 in Palm Beach before returning to Toronto later that day. The team will then fly to California on Feb. 8 for the second half of camp with friendlies against Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC before flying home Feb. 17.
Herdman said the focus in Florida will be on preparing the team physically while working on the club's culture by challenging the players.
"But then the next piece is really getting down to purpose — 'Why we're here' And I think that happens when you're suffering."
The second stage of camp in California will be about "tactical cohesion."
Toronto opens the regular season on Feb. 25 at FC Cincinnati. The home opener is March 9 against Charlotte FC.
Toronto FC Training Camp Roster (x- denotes 2024 draft choice, y-denotes 2023 draft choice)
Goalkeepers: Luka Gavran, Greg Ranjitsingh, Sean Johnson.
Defenders: Kobe Franklin, Aimé Mabika, x-Joey Maher, Shane O’Neill, Raoul Petretta, Sigurd Rosted, Luke Singh
Midfielders: Latif Blessing, Alonso Coello, Deybi Flores, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Jonathan Osorio, x-Tyrese Spicer, Brandon Servania, Kosi Thompson.
Forwards: Ayo Akinola, Federico Bernardeschi, Adama Diomande, Lorenzo Insigne, Deandre Kerr, Cassius Mailula, Hugo Mbongue, Prince Owusu, Jordan Perruzza, y-Charlie Sharp.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2024.