Toronto FC looks to add comforts of home in Florida by keeping families close

·5 min read

TORONTO — Released from lockdown and back training again after an outbreak of COVID-19, Toronto FC leaves for Florida on Wednesday to set up shop in the Orlando area for the MLS season.

Pandemic-related border restrictions forced the team to finish out last year in East Hartford. This season it has opted for Orlando — familiar ground given it has held pre-season camps there in the past.

And like the Raptors have done in Tampa, families will be able to join them in the Sunshine State.

TFC GM Ali Curtis, who is married with a son and daughter, says the expectation is some families will be with the team as early as mid- to late April. The club is currently working with players, staff and their families on accommodations, ether at the team hotel or local-area homes and apartments.

Head coach Chris Armas, who is married with two sons, says his family plans to visit although he admits it won't be easy given 16-year-old Aleksei's own practice schedule.

"I know he misses me but trying to put my games above his own, that's going to be tricky," he said during a virtual chat with reporters Monday.

Adding to the degree of difficulty is the hope TFC may be able to return home during the season if the pandemic allows.

Toronto captain Michael Bradley, married with a son and daughter, is also figuring out the logistics.

"Still to be determined," he said when asked if his family will head south. "Everybody is looking at it in different ways. Obviously the age of kids, school, soccer, ballet, other activities — it all factors in. We're going to wait a few more weeks and kind of see what things are looking like here (in Toronto). And then make a decision."

Armas, who succeeded the departed Greg Vanney in mid-January, praised the club for its commitment to its employees. For Armas, the club motto "All for One" really does mean something.

"That for me has been incredible," he said. "Like the highest level of taking care of people, caring about the right things every day … So that's going to be nice.

"I told some of these guys they can drop their kids off in my room. I'll babysit. And then I had to rethink that," he added, likely with a smile under his mask.

Armas said given the stressful times, "we want to make sure that it feels like a regular season in some way, setting up a home base there — that that's our home. You go to training and you go home to your family. The more than we can have there, even better. Physically, mentally it helps everything."

TFC made some arrangements last season to have family join the travelling party in Hartford.

Forward Patrick Mullins, who got married in January, got to spend some time in Hartford last year with wife-to-be Meggie. She drove from Washington, D.C., where her parents live, and essentially joined the team's testing protocol.

"That made a big difference for me," he said, adding the hope is they can be together again in Florida.

"Each person's situation regarding families or significant others is all a little bit different," he said. "But Meggie and I we're still working to see exactly what we can do, if she can be down there, what that exactly looks like."

TFC did its best last year to help families back in Toronto, flying in relatives to help share the load as well as delivering meals and even offering pet care help.

The Blue Jays will also remain in Florida, playing out of their pre-season home in Dunedin for at least the start of the baseball season. They are expected to shift to Buffalo, as they did last summer, once the weather improves.

The Raptors have also done their best to make Tampa feel like home, with some enjoying family and creature comforts. Star point guard Kyle Lowry, for one, is driving to work in a Ferrari.

CF Montreal will also call Florida home for at least the start of the MLS season. It is sharing Inter Miami's facilities in Fort Lauderdale.

Toronto returned to full training last Friday with some players having resumed modified individual workouts the previous Monday. Its last full training session before that was March 3.

The team had nine cases of COVID, according to figures released by the city of Toronto. Everyone is healthy ow, the club says

"What it did for us was it just threw off the rhythm and the momentum," said Armas. "So we've had to rebuild that. And we have. So we're in a good place right now as we ramp things up on the eve of heading to Orlando."

First up is the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 tie with Mexico's Club Leon, which kicks off April 7 in Mexico with the April 14 return leg in the Orlando area. Toronto opens the MLS regular season April 17 against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale.

"We want to throw everything at the tournament," said Armas. "We will be prepared and ready to to attack it, for sure. And (we're) also thinking about the MLS season.

"But this certainly has just been just really some interesting days and challenges along the way which the guys have responded (to) tremendously."

Armas said striker Ayo Akinola and winger Tsubasa Endoh continue to work their way back from undisclosed injuries. Forward Ifunanyachi Achara is still recovering from knee surgery.

TFC plans an intrasquad game in Florida and a pre-season friendly Saturday against Inter Miami's USL team. Another friendly is set for April 1 against Columbus Crew SC.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press