TFC Notebook: How a 'heated' film session may be the spark that turns Toronto FC's season around
It’s another Friday, which means it’s time for another TFC Notebook.
A new notebook will be released every Friday throughout the course of the 2023 Toronto FC season, featuring news and updates from training during the week, exclusive interviews, tidbits and more. It's supported by BET99 Sportsbook so if you're interested in responsible gaming, please check out their special welcome offer.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Last Week’s Notebook: Víctor Vázquez says he wants to retire in Toronto
How a ‘heated’ video session may be the spark that turns TFC’s season around
On Tuesday afternoon at the BMO Training Ground, in an almost empty media room, Brandon Servania could not help but laugh. I'd just asked him how the team’s video session went last week.
The club does multiple film sessions per week, and I didn’t specify which session I was asking about, but he knew the one I was referring to.
“(laughs) Yeah, it was just a lot of discussion between the guys and between the staff, a lot of things that we were just trying to get on the same page about,” said Servania.
His initial reaction said it all.
This wasn’t your typical video session, one that veteran defender Matt Hedges described as a “medium temperature” session, though Michael Bradley would disagree.
“For me, it was a video session after the game,” the TFC captain said.
Bradley wasn’t wrong, but just three days prior, Toronto FC had blown a lead for the third game in a row – the third straight match that they failed to pick up a full three points. The football wasn’t pretty, the results even uglier, and frustration both inside and outside the locker room was beginning to mount.
“I think we need to play [football] more for sure,” Federico Bernardeschi told reporters post-game, “because in the second half we didn’t play. And for sure, we need to play more football, more right pass, on field and not long ball. We need to improve. We need to win the game because we need the win. We played three matches, and one loss and two ties and this is not good for me, my mentality.”
It was a disappointing start to the season. Given the amount of talent that Toronto FC possess on their roster – big personalities and proven winners – there are expectations that they play a certain brand of exciting football and that they win games, and they weren’t meeting either of those expectations early on.
On the heels of their third straight blown lead, the team needed to come together and air it out. They needed to take a long, hard look at themselves and get on the same page.
“Do they usually take this long to come out?” one reporter asked in the TFC media room, as we waited for the team to head out to the field for training.
The start of training that morning was delayed for about 40 minutes longer than usual.
“It was a longer session because we really looked at the details of what we needed to do. It was a little bit more heated, but that’s what we needed. If we are going to get it right, we need things like that to happen,” said Hedges.
As they do after every match, the team reviewed clips picked out by the coaching staff from their previous game: the goals, a few things that they liked from the first half against Columbus, and then certain moments where they could improve, including their ability to deal with a particular play or be sharper and make more of an advantage gained. Head coach and sporting director Bradley also challenged his team to be locked in at all times. When a ball goes out of play, how quickly could they regroup?
One of the focuses of the session centered around the team’s pressing. There were a few situations in the game against Columbus that TFC felt their press was broken too easily. When looking back at the tape, there was a disconnect about certain situations: a couple of players who either weren’t in the right spots or were in the right spots and were not telling other guys where they needed to be.
There were some who had their own ideas – what they thought was the right decision in those moments – and having the ability to voice their opinion, clear the air, and get on the same page helped the team press Miami “much better that they had in other games,” according to both Hedges and Servania.
“It wasn’t an easy discussion at the beginning of this week, it was a little frustrating, but we took that and we put it into [Saturday’s] performance, so guys are going to feel good and feel confident that when we do have these tough conversations that it means that it’s for the good of the team and that we can adapt and perform better,” said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Kaye, Hedges, Servania, and Jonathan Osorio all agreed that Tuesday’s video session factored into the team’s performance on Saturday.
“It was positive. We got what we needed out of it. We went out on the field and had a great training [session] and you could tell right away that what we had talked about was being applied,” said Hedges.
“I think [it] definitely showed in the game against Miami. We were a little bit more on the same page,” added Servania.
It’s too early to tell whether that film session will actually lead to a complete turnaround in TFC’s season, but, if they do go on a run here, perhaps it’s something that we can look back on as a potential turning point in the year.
This isn’t to say that this video session was a big blow-up or that players were flipping tables or throwing chairs, but rather, it’s just an anecdote that paints a story of a team, with several new faces, starting to come together and feel more comfortable about speaking their minds, for the better of the team.
As Bradley says, you need that level of comfort – the ability to speak without a filter – on every good side.
“There is work that goes on every single day to try to become a better team, and that work is not just every guy telling every other guy exactly what they want to hear; that’s on every team I’ve ever been on,” said Bradley.
“There’s nothing personal about it. There’s nothing out of the ordinary. That’s just the reality that we live every single day. And honestly, if you don’t have that going on, then that’s a problem.”
Lorenzo Insigne does not want a move away from Toronto
The Lorenzo Insigne is ‘unhappy in MLS’ rumours are way overblown, according to multiple sources.
When attempting to reach Insigne for comment earlier this week, The Toronto Sun’s Steve Buffery was told by Toronto FC that the Italian ‘didn’t even want to acknowledge those stupid rumours.’
Has his start to his Toronto FC career been smooth sailing? Absolutely not. Last season, he arrived with a calf injury that delayed the start of his year, which was then interrupted by the tragic loss of his unborn baby. By the time he returned, a depleted Toronto FC squad was fighting an uphill battle to squeeze into the postseason, and we know how that turned out.
The club and Insigne were eager to get the 2023 season off to a strong start. He had played 90 minutes against the LA Galaxy in their preseason finale, wrapping up what everyone felt was areally good training camp.
But then unfortunately, he suffered a groin injury 34 minutes into the season opener against DC United, which will now cost him the better part of at least six matches. So, if anything, there’s frustration on Insigne’s end that he hasn’t been able to help the team in the way that he has wanted to, something head coach Bob Bradley touched on Friday afternoon when I asked him whether he cared to address the rumours.
“Not really, because I see Lorenzo every day. He comes in in a good way. He’s been good in the group. Obviously, in this last stretch when he can’t play, and when rumours come up and nobody really does much to check sources and stuff like that, that’s not stuff we usually think about or talk about, especially when day-in and day-out within the group you get a good feel for what everybody is doing,” Bradley said.
By all accounts, Toronto FC – and its staff behind the scenes – have gone above and beyond to make Insigne and his family feel comfortable in Toronto. And, from what I’ve been told, his family really has enjoyed life in Toronto – his kids are apparently big Raptors fans.
“The work of understanding people, how their families are doing, I think that TFC as a club does a really good job for looking out for not only the player but their families,” added Bradley. “In that regard, everybody cares deeply for Lorenzo and Jenny and the boys, and we’re always excited to keep trying to help them feel good about every part of being here. And I know, for Lorenzo, so much of that starts with being healthy and being on the field.”
It's a non-story for now. It hasn’t been the best start, but Insigne isn’t ready – and the team certainly isn’t ready for him – to make an exit. If you’re keeping track, the former SSC Napoli captain is 2-3 matches away from making a return from a groin injury.
Michael Bradley: “We’re just scratching the surface”
The good vibes are back in Toronto.
After a disappointing start to the year, the Reds picked up their first win of the season on Saturday, defeating Inter Miami CF, 2-0, at BMO Field.
Toronto FC have taken five points from their first four matches, and the team probably should’ve had at least eight had it not been for a late collapse against D.C. United to begin the season.
All that to say, it’s amazing how quickly one victory can shift the narrative and overall outlook of a season.
“I think [the guys] feel really good about the way the group is coming together and the way things are now starting to come together on and off the field,” Michael Bradley told Room 4-4-2 in a 1-on-1 interview Wednesday.
Toronto FC was left disheartened following their 3-2 loss to D.C on opening day, but the response that came afterwards – to go on the road against Atlanta United, a really good team, in a hard place to play, and earn a draw – has the TFC captain feeling optimistic about the direction that the team is heading.
“Obviously, on the day our football wasn’t what any of us would like on a consistent basis, but you looked on the field and you saw the mentality, and the commitment, and the togetherness – the willingness to fight and suffer for each other – and you take a really good, important point in Atlanta,” said Bradley.
Toronto FC remain the only team that has taken a point off Atlanta, who sit first in the Eastern Conference, five points clear of the Reds. You could make the argument that if that was last year’s Toronto FC team, there’d be no way they would have survived the onslaught of chances thrown their way.
One point from two road matches (and it should have been four points) wasn’t the worst start on the road, and with the prospect of returning home for a mini two-game homestand, there was real excitement around the club.
But, when Toronto FC returned to BMO Field for their home opener, the conditions – playing in the freezing cold – didn’t exactly benefit the hosts.
“We’ve played two games at home in our stadium, we’ve taken four points. Would we like it to have been six? Sure. But guess what, when you’re playing games early in the season, in sub-freezing temperatures, especially for a team that wants to play football and wants to try and play in a certain way, and attack and create chances and control the game, it’s not always easy the colder it gets,” Bradley explained.
Some may say that the team is simply making excuses, but there is plenty of reason behind the 35-year-old midfielder’s stance.
Cold-weather teams do have it a little bit tougher at the start of the year. After spending preseason in California and training outside, TFC have been forced to train in a bubble at the BMO Training Ground – on turf. It wasn’t until this past Tuesday the club was able to train outdoors, due to the snowy weather conditions in Toronto.
Add in the loss of star winger Lorenzo Insigne, and all of a sudden five points from the first four matches doesn’t sound as bad as it feels.
“I talk about all of those things (the weather and the collapse vs. DC) just because at the end of it now we’re four games in, the first game didn’t go the way we would’ve hoped after a good preseason, but the response after the first game in all ways has been really strong, and we’re just scratching the surface of where we’ll be,” said Bradley.
All that being said, the team needed to feel a win – their first taste of victory in nine matches dating back to last season. It’s much easier for a team to go through another week of training on the back of a win than a loss; the players needed that morale boost.
“For any group, for any team in its early stages, everyone can feel good on the inside about the work that’s going on every day … but you need tangible results to then give you that next bit of confidence and reinforcement of everything you’re doing,” said Bradley.
He added: “Look, we have a strong group. The group this year is night and day from last year, in terms of experience, in terms of leadership, in terms of overall commitment, engagement, so now your ability to deal with things and moments in a season that don’t go perfect that part is much better when you have a group that we have now.”
“But of course, we’re all competitors and we all want to win. Any competitor needs the positive reinforcement of that feeling, when you walk in after a game and now you’ve put everything you’ve had into it and now you have on that night taken your reward.”
Bradley and I had a 30-minute sit down, touching on a wide variety of topics. It was a fascinating chat, so keep an eye out for plenty more from that interview in the coming weeks.
Brandon Servania is “getting better and better”
When Toronto FC traded away last year’s co-leading scorer, Jesús Jiménez, right before the start of the season, not many knew much about the FC Dallas midfielder that the club was getting back in return. Now four matches into the season, fans and media can’t stop talking about Brandon Servania.
The Birmingham, Alabama native had just three days to acclimate to a new club, a new environment, a new city, and a brand-new system, making Servania’s strong start to his Toronto FC career even more impressive.
“I think every game he’s getting better and better,” said teammate Jonathan Osorio. “And he’s learning the system more and more. I think this is a system that's different to what he was used to in Dallas for the beginning of his career.”
The biggest difference between Bob Bradley’s Toronto system and the one that Servania had been used to in Dallas was that there was much more fluidity between guys on the pitch. The former U.S. men’s national team head coach trusts his players to make decisions during the game in a much less rigid way than the 24-year-old midfielder was accustomed to.
“It’s positional, but there’s times where, you know, it’s football. In the game, you have to read certain situations and make decisions as far as what you think is best,” said Servania.
The human element of moving to a new country and the process of settling in is often overlooked. As we spoke on Tuesday, Servania was still in the process of moving into his new apartment. He added that the game that the team played in on Saturday against Miami was the coldest match that he has ever played in.
Ironically, it’s also the match in which Servania had his best performance of the season.
“Solid,” said Bob Bradley after Saturday’s win, offering his evaluation of Servania. “He has a lot of really good starting points. He's a very good guy. He wants to learn. He trains well every day. He's got a good mix as a midfielder between working hard and still having a way when balls come of how he can arrange himself. There are things we talk about that are slightly different than things he's heard before but he seems to be always open, and I think he's played well.”
Servania agreed with his head coach’s assessment, adding that the chemistry with his new teammates is building and it’s showing on the pitch. That said, he was adamant that there’s always room for improvement – a nod to his humble approach.
A lot of TFC fans have likened Servania to former Toronto FC midfielder Marky Delgado, and I get it. His work-rate and ability to win possession back has been a welcome addition to a side that isn’t exactly the quickest. But, I think he’s got a much higher ceiling than the now-LA Galaxy mainstay, given his skill and ability on the ball.
In early 2021, Servania went on a three-week training stint with Bayern Munich. A week later, he joined Austrian Bundesliga side St. Pölten on loan, and went on to appear in 11 matches. He’s already experienced European football, and while he does have ambition to return to Europe one day, he understands that putting in the work and staying focused at the task at hand, here in Toronto, will be what potentially gets him there one day.
The more that I see Servania, the more I can’t help but think back to the conversation I had with Tom Bogert on the box-to-box midfielder, prior to the season, where the MLS and USMNT insider said that the American can be “an absolute steal” for Toronto.
Added Time: News and Notes
— Toronto FC will call up a pair of central midfielders, Alonso Coello and Markus Cimermancic, from Toronto FC II for tomorrow's match vs. San Jose. The duo has trained with the first team dating back to last season and will sign short-term loan agreements.
— Toronto FC will be missing up to eight players for their trip to San Jose on Saturday: Insigne, Osorio, Kaye, Akinola, Laryea, Diomande, Gutiérrez have all been ruled out, while Shane O’Neill’s status (head) is a question mark, though he wasn’t listed on the injury report. TFC are +280 underdogs; they haven’t won in San Jose since 2010.
— With his goal over the weekend, Jonathan Osorio has now scored in each of his eleven seasons with Toronto FC (2013 – 2023), extending an all-time TFC record (H/T @martyn_bailey, make sure you give him a follow because there’s no one better when it comes to TFC stats.)
— With Toronto FC short on numbers, 16-year-old TFC Academy standout Lazar Stefanovic trained with the first team this week. The Canadian youth international captained Canada at the Under-17 Concacaf Championship last month. Those at the club are very high on the central defender.
— Toronto FC II signed midfielder Matthew Catavolo, forward Jesus Batiz, and former midfielder Jordan Faria to MLS NEXT Pro contracts this week. Catavolo, 20, is an intriguing prospect. He was teammates with Deandre Kerr, Kobe Franklin, Jayden Nelson, and Ralph Priso at the 2019 U-17 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and was the top scorer of CF Montréal’s U-23 reserve team in 2021. He spent last season with CanPL’s Valour FC and was training with TFC’s first team earlier this month.
— 18-year-old goalkeeper Adisa De Rosario, the son of TFC legend Dwayne De Rosario, was also one of four academy products that TFC II signed to MLS NEXT Pro contracts this week.
— Speaking of Toronto FC II, their season kicks off on Monday on the road against FC Cincinnati 2. The Young Reds reached the conference finals last season.
— Richie Laryea and Federico Bernardeschi were named to the MLS Team of the Matchday for Week 4. They’re the second and third TFC players to be named to the TOTW after Sean Johnson got the call following his Week 2 heroics vs. Atlanta.
— Matt Hedges made his 300th MLS start last weekend. John Molinaro caught up with the veteran defender to reflect on his storied career.
— Major League Soccer’s All-Stars will face Premier League side Arsenal in the 2023 MLS All-Star Game at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday July 19. The two sides will compete in a skills competition the evening before. The All-Stars will be coached by D.C. United’s Wayne Rooney. Last season, Lorenzo Insigne was chosen to represent Toronto FC in the All-Star Game but withdrew due to injury; this season, there may be a few TFC players that could make their case.