ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s only pre-season but it’s an intense slog for Toronto FC players under the new regime of Ryan Nelsen.
On Wednesday, the former New Zealand international defender and his coaching staff put their MLS team through a tough late morning session under the searing Florida sun.
Each part of the practice had been planned in advance, with the players briefed at a morning meeting what to expect — and why the drill was being done. Everything was timed, down to water breaks — which was the only time the players stop working.
During one part of the session, the squad was broken down into groups marshalled by assistant coaches. Later on, players who were not taking part in a larger drill occupied themselves by running the length of the field.
Just as NFL coaches script their opening plays, Nelsen and his staff have a definite pre-season plan to prepare Toronto FC.
"We don’t just put on a session for the sake of putting on a session," Nelsen said afterwards. "You don’t have very many in pre-season so you’ve got to get it right."
Nelsen, who joined the MLS team in Florida last weekend after hanging up his playing boots with Queens Park Rangers, has planned every session through the season opener March 2 in Vancouver.
At 35, Nelsen may be new to the sidelines but he has clearly been preparing for his time as a manager. He has reviewed, edited and revamped training sessions he has taken part in or witnessed to craft his own vision.
"As a coach, I have a DNA of how I want my team to play and that’s evolved over years of observations and learnings. What comes out is my fingerprint and it will be my fingerprint on the team."
Previous Toronto FC coaches like Aron Winter had a soccer destination — in Winter’s case, total football via a 4-3-3 system — but seemed to lack the road map to get there.
Nelsen clearly has a blueprint. Where it will take Toronto FC is still to be written but he cannot be accused of not having a plan.
Players already have been told what to expect for the whole year. After Saturday games, Sunday will be a recovery day while Monday will be a day off. In weeks when there aren’t Wednesday games, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be hard sessions to prepare players for midweek action.
On Wednesday, after a warmup jog and exercises, players were divided into groups for one-versus-one, two-versus-two or three-versus-three drills. From the sidelines of a shortened field, assistant coach Jim Brennan yelled out a number for how many players were to be involved, then kicked the ball into the middle like an XFL kickoff. The player who got to it first then launched the attack.
By the time the practice had ended, 12-man teams were on the pitch looking to string passes together and keep possession before going for goal. When the ball did get into the final third of the pitch, Brennan would sometimes fire another ball in to keep the other players occupied.
For much of the session, Nelsen was an observer although he stopped one possession drill to offer advice when the shape of the blue team started getting compressed.
"You’re making it very hard on yourself," he said. "You’re not using the whole field.
"Use your brain. Think … Use the space."
The message was delivered in a calm and matter-of-fact tone. Nelsen also gathered the players several times during the session, offering praise and promising they will improve on the drills as they get used to them.
Slowly, the new coaching staff is passing on its message. Defend to attack and knowing when to pressure as a team are just two of the base strategies.
The team is doing one-a-day sessions plus gym work. And the early reviews are positive.
"The training sessions have been great since Day 1," said defender Jeremy Hall.
"The intensity is where we’re getting our fitness in … Fitness is more enjoyable when you’re playing with the ball," Hall added.
"Everything’s been spot on," said rookie striker Taylor Morgan.
Several players complained that the team was poorly prepared physically at last season’s training camp. That should not be the case here.
And while Toronto president and GM Kevin Payne complained to reporters last week that several players reported to camp in less than satisfactory shape, Nelsen and assistant coach Fran O’Leary have made a point of not jumping on that bandwagon.
"I think it’s pretty plain to see that the guys are working really hard," Nelsen said when asked about Payne’s comments. "The attitude’s there, the character’s there, it’s been fantastic."
Added O’Leary: "From Day 1, since we’ve arrived, they’ve been terrific."
O’Leary said coaches already worry players may be doing too much extra work in the gym.
The bottom line is don’t expect this coaching braintrust to call out its players.
"He’s a brilliant guy, really personable," said Morgan, taken in the supplement draft. "I really feel like I can talk to him if I need to. He’s really comfortable around the rest of the lads and I think that’s really important as a coach."
Nelsen makes a point of being inclusive, crediting all of his assistant coaches if asked about one.
Judging from early camp observations, newly acquired defensive midfielder Julio Cesar is a thoroughbred. And you don’t want to get in the way of veteran defender Danny Califf.
The Toronto players walked past players in the Atlanta Braves system exercising on a field as they walked to their training pitch at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
Toronto opens exhibition play Saturday against the Columbus Crew on the opening day of the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. The Montreal Impact, who are also training in the Orlando area, play Sporting Kansas City immediately after.
Notes — Trinidad and Tobago international defender-midfielder Joevin Jones is in camp on trial. There are also three members of the Toronto FC Academy training with the senior squad: defenders Daniel Fabrizi and Derrick Bassi, and midfielder Jonathan Osorio … Danny Koevermans (knee), Logan Emory (shoulder) and Richard Eckersley (thigh knock) trained separately from the main squad.