TFC’s Bradley not concerned about slow start to season

TFC's head coach explains why Jozy Altidore seems to be finally realizing his potential, and how the rivalry with the Montreal Impact can benefit soccer in Canada.

TORONTO – We’re talking about a small sample size of Toronto FC games, and, lest we forget, it’s still March.

There’s no reason to be worried. If you’re panicking, take a deep breath and remind yourself that there are 32 games remaining in Major League Soccer’s regular season. It’s still incredibly early — far too early to draw any concrete conclusions or make any prognostications about how the rest of the year will play out.

Maybe it’s because 2016 was such a breakthrough year, and the memory of the Reds’ run to the MLS Cup final is still so fresh in the collective conscience. Whatever the reason, a sense of disappointment lingers over TFC as it prepares to visit the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday evening.

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The Reds will enter the game against their Canadian rivals having drawn their first two matches of the campaign — 0-0 against Real Salt Lake in the season opener, followed by a 2-2 stalemate vs. the Philadelphia Union last week. Two out of a possible six points is a pretty modest return for a club that most pundits predicted would win the Eastern Conference.

Michael Bradley, TFC’s ultra-competitive and super-serious captain, isn’t pleased with the results through the first two games. But he’s not worried about the Reds’ relatively slow start, either, explaining that securing two points on the road in a league where teams have historically struggled to win away from home, is a respectable haul.

“I’m not going to spend too much time over-analyzing because it’s two games; it’s two games played in very, very extreme conditions: altitude, wind, cold, [and] long and slow dry fields. The conditions at the beginning of the year all across the league are what they are. We feel good about the fact that we’ve gone on the road and not lost, coming away with two points,” Bradley stated.

That being said, Bradley admitted Toronto left points on the table in both Salt Lake and Philadelphia.

“We should have a few more points — there’s no two ways about that. But if we can continue to build on the mentality and build on everything that we’ve been about, then I think we all feel good about the direction we’re headed in,” Bradley said.

Noticeable through the Reds’ first two outings has been the underwhelming form of Sebastian Giovinco, the club’s star forward and league MVP from 2015. The Italian forward failed to find the back of the net against Salt Lake and Philadelphia, and he has managed to register just two shots on goal thus far.

He also saw his penalty attempt saved by RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, marking the Italian’s first penalty miss since 2015. Against Philadelphia, he was kept relatively quiet before being forced out of the action with a leg injury late in the first half following a heavy collision with Union defender Oguchi Onyewu.

Giovinco has been ruled out for the trip to Vancouver, and under normal circumstances, the Italian’s absence might be cause for concern for the Reds. Bradley, though, isn’t too worried about it, and feels Canadian Tosaint Ricketts, who will likely start in Giovinco’s place alongside Jozy Altidore, can make a big difference against the Whitecaps.

“You look at a guy like Tosaint Ricketts, and the difference that he’s made for us since he got here halfway through the season last year. He’s a guy who is so important for our group, both in terms of what [takes place] on the field and off the field,” Bradley offered.

“It’s important that as the year goes on we’re finding big opportunities for him to show everybody what he can do and how good of a player he is because he’s a really important part of everything that’s going on.”

Ricketts subbed in for Giovinco at the start of the second half in Philadelphia, and sparked TFC’s attack with his speed and direct play. That was just a small taste of what Toronto can expect from Ricketts, who Bradley feels would be a starter on most other MLS clubs.

“On a team with two of the best forwards in the league in Jozy and Seba, Tos is the perfect complement, because when we need to play all three of them, [they] play very well together and have found a way of being dangerous,” Bradley explained.

“When Tos plays with one of [either Altidore or Giovinco], his qualities compliment both of them very well…. If you looked at a lot of teams across the league, Tos is a guy who’d be playing even more.”

Bradley later added: “When [Ricketts] plays, he’s damn good. I don’t think there’s a centre back in the league who gets excited about playing against him.”

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