Toronto FC still winning on extended road trip but being away from home takes a toll | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Toronto FC still winning on extended road trip but being away from home takes a toll

Toronto FC midfielder Nick DeLeon (18) is challenged by Montreal Impact midfielder Victor Wanyama (2) during second half MLS soccer action in Montreal, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
October 10, 2020 - 10:19 AM

Away from the pitch in their pandemic home of East Hartford, Toronto FC players can play foosball, ping-pong or video games.

A tech ball table, which combines soccer and table tennis, was installed this week. They can shoot hoops or play ball hockey, as some of the staff did this week, at UConn's basketball facility which is across the street from where they are staying.

Assistant coach Jason Bent is the resident DJ, entertaining nightly in "the library" -- what they call the hotel's bar/coffee shop which is currently closed. Head coach Greg Vanney has raved about the food.

Despite such amenities, TFC's five-star hotel in Hartford is a long way from home.

For midfielder Nick DeLeon, a father of two, the time away from family is hard.

"I'm a pretty introverted guy, homebody. And I'm around my family all the time," the 30-year-old said in a virtual chat with reporters. "So being away from them is definitely not easy for me. There are multiple days a week where it's a mental grind. You've got to get yourself up, you've got to get yourself motivated to get about your day.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat it, because I've never been away from my family like this year -- so many times, for this amount of time with pre-season, then Orlando (for the MLS is Back Tournament) and now here. So that aspect has definitely been challenging."

DeLeon's wife and kids are currently in Kentucky where her family can provide some support in his absence.

Like the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto has been forced to play south of border because of COVID-19 travel restrictions barring U.S. teams from coming north.

The 2020 MLS schedule has been in flux since March 12 when the pandemic halted play two weeks into the campaign.

Teams resumed play at the MLS is Back Tournament, which ran July 8 to Aug. 11 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in the Orlando area. That competition did not include FC Dallas or Nashville SC, who were both forced to leave the MLS bubble due to positive COVID-19 tests.

After the Florida tournament, the league resumed regional play with the three Canadians teams playing each other three times. When the border remained closed, they moved south to finish out the 12 remaining regular-season games left on each of their schedules.

Vancouver has set up shop in Portland while Montreal is playing out of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. Toronto made its base in East Hartford, playing at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.

While the team was at the Florida tournament, TFC flew in players' relatives to help ease the load back home. And the club is currently helping families with everything from child care to looking after pets. Chef Elaine Flamenco and her culinary crew at the club's north Toronto training facility are providing meals that are delivered to the players' families.

Toronto did make it home for a couple of days during a break in its congested schedule after a 3-1 win over Columbus on Sept. 27. While some like Scottish fullback Tony Gallacher remained in Hartford because they have no family in Toronto.

The team left after the Sunday night game and returned to Hartford that Wednesday. Those that returned to Toronto observed quarantine protocols before getting back on the plane to go south.

The circumstances have not affected the club's play. League-leading Toronto (10-2-4) has won four straight and is unbeaten in six (5-0-1) going into Sunday's contest at FC Cincinnati (3-9-4).

"You can never underestimate when times are tough that getting results is also like a big Band-Aid to the situation," said Vanney.

Toronto's travelling part of 50 to 55 has had to adapt daily. This week, for example, their allotted training field wasn't available so they went in search of a pitch -- eventually training in a youth park that was farther away and of lesser-quality than normal.

"We got through our work and guys still had fun," said Vanney.

The Toronto roster is a mix of veterans and youth. There are 13 players aged 28 or older, a veteran core with many part of the team's run to the MLS Cup final in 2016, '17 and '19. Eleven players are 22 or younger.

"The situation is different for everybody," said DeLeon. "For me personally, I've found it very challenging."

Players say they are using being away from home as motivation, reasoning that if they have to be away from loved ones, they better make it worth while on the pitch.

"We know this is not going to be easy, we know it's not going to be comfortable," said DeLeon. "We have to push that from our brains and we have to go abut the business. I don't know how else to say it -- the mentality of the group has been phenomenal."

Said Gonzalez: "When you have that core group, that chemistry, and you add in a few fresh faces, the majority of the group knows what's needed to go far, to get the job done."

But the separation takes a toll. Gonzalez, a 31-year-old Texan who is a father of two, says he has to make an effort to leave his room, because otherwise the walls close in.

Players have been leaning on each other.

"There's definitely been some good conversations and some very personal conversations that I normally don't have with teammates that I've been having over ... I'd say these past few months," said DeLeon. "So in that side, it's been very rewarding because you're getting to know these guys on a different level when you're sharing your most deepest, personal thoughts."

Vanney, a father of four, says he checks in on players daily. Michael Rabasca, the team's director of high performance and cognitive development, and other staff are available if players want to share.

"They have access to people, if they want," said Vanney.

While players have discovered a neighbourhood with restaurants and shops in Hartford, the team tries to avoid being around people outside its bubble.

"There's not much going on here. We try to stay in as much as we can," said Gonzalez. "But when we do get out, it's not Toronto. I'll say that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2020

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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