Winter wonderland awaits Toronto FC for start of training camp

Toronto FC's Richie Laryea, left, and Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo celebrate. (Jessica Hill/AP)

Toronto FC opens training camp Wednesday in a winter wonderland, with a new coach in Chris Armas and the hope that the search for a third designated player is close to completion.

Other questions remain as TFC kicks off the post-Greg Vanney era.

Where Toronto will play its home games is chief among them, after the club finished out the 2020 season in East Hartford, Conn. TFC ended up playing just four games at BMO Field last season due to the pandemic.

Florida seems a likely option given the current border restrictions. Team president Bill Manning has mentioned Tampa and the team is no stranger to Orlando, having held pre-season there in the past.

"We're looking at a number of different sites that make sense," GM Ali Curtis said Tuesday. "Hopefully warmer weather."

Toronto has been given permission to open camp early to prepare for the Canadian Championship final against Forge FC, which will determine who will face Mexico's Club Leon in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round of 16, which is scheduled to start April 6-8.

February in Toronto is more about snow than soccer, however, and Torontonians, including Curtis, found themselves shovelling driveways and shivering Tuesday in the wake of a winter storm.

Still, Toronto players are supposed to train Wednesday, with most having already observed the necessary quarantine and testing.

"We expect most of the players to be in (Wednesday)," said Curtis.

"It's been a challenge, I'll say that," he added.

The club has had to ensure players got here and then keep track of the hoops they have to jump through before they can start training. Changes to the start of the season -- now set for April 17 -- only complicated matters.

Most other MLS clubs will report March 1 for a seven-day quarantine period, with team training set to start March 8. Atlanta United, Columbus Crew SC, the Philadelphia Union, and Portland Timbers, who have already qualified for the Champions League, can report Feb. 24.

Toronto can work out under a bubble at its north Toronto training centre and may spend more time at BMO Field, where the playing surface has underground heating (unlike the training facility).

"With the right temperatures and things like that, we'll be able to train outside at BMO Field. But then if we need to be inside because of too much snow or because of really cold temperatures, we'll train in the bubble," said Curtis.

That includes designated players Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore, who are both expected to be in camp Wednesday.

As for a third DP to fill the void left by Pablo Piatti, Toronto has been linked to Colombian international forward Rafael Santos Borre. Currently with Argentina's River Plate, the 25-year-old has also spent time with Colombia's Deportivo Cali and Spain's Atletico Madrid and Villarreal.

MLS's amended primary transfer window opens March 10 and runs through June 1.

"We're hopeful that we can get a DP signing done within that window, so we do have some time," said Curtis, who declined to name names. "Ideally you'd love someone to be signed and ready to go tomorrow but that's not going to happen.

"The goal is to get a designated player in before the window closes. I'm confident that that will happen, but we've got to sort through all the details."

The difficulty in travelling these days has not made it any easier. Curtis and Manning both racked up the frequent flyer miles in prying Pozuelo away from Belgium's Genk in March 2019.

Asked what it's like chasing a target during the pandemic, Curtis laughed and replied: "It's terrible."

"In some ways its even more stressful," he added. "Sometimes you're like 'I've just got to get on a plane and go knock on the door until they let you in and get it done.' Here it's more phone calls, more Zooms. You feel like you have less control over a deal."

There will be familiar faces with defenders Justin Morrow and Eriq Zavaleta, whose contracts expired at the end of last season, expected to be back.

Against the odds, Toronto managed to finished the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season second overall at 13-5-5 only to disappointingly fall 1-0 to expansion Nashville SC at the first playoff hurdle Nov. 24.

Curtis expects the club to spend "the majority" of training camp in Toronto. But he says things could change after the Canadian Championship final.

"After that, our games will be either abroad, whether that's the U.S. or in some other countries," said Curtis.

Toronto has spent part of its training camp in Mexico in the past to prepare for the Champions League, CONCACAF's flagship club competition.

Curtis said he is awaiting an update from his medical staff on the status of forward Ayo Akinola, who missed a Canada camp during the off-season due to injury. Akinola is already in Toronto, however.

Wednesday's forecast calls for a high of minus-3 C, with wind chill feeling like minus-22 in the morning and minus-5 in the afternoon. More snow is expected Thursday.

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