Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley says it will be “surreal” leading the MLS team out before an expected crowd of 23,000-plus at BMO Field on Saturday.
Attendance for the home opener against the New York Red Bulls is shaping up to be TFC’s largest at BMO Field since the 2020 home opener, when an announced crowd of 26,171 saw Toronto edge New York City FC 1-0 on March 7. The sporting world ground to a halt the next week due to the pandemic.
“If anything the last two years have taught us all to not take anything for granted, to not consider anything a given,” Bradley said after training Friday. “So I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t a few moments along the way over the last year or two where you wondered if you were ever going to get, forget another season, another game at BMO with a real atmosphere, with all our fans.
“So the fact that [Saturday] hopefully sets up to be that, there aren’t words to describe how excited I am and honestly I think the entire group feels the same way.”
WATCH | Toronto FC play to a draw in their season opener:
The wait has been even longer for Bradley, who was on crutches for the 2020 home opener after undergoing off-season surgery to repair an ankle injured in Toronto’s loss to Seattle in the 2019 MLS Cup final. Bradley said he didn’t make it to the stadium for the NYCFC game.
“I can remember that afternoon it was just easier to watch at home,” he said.
Toronto was forced to relocate to Hartford and Orlando for parts of the 2020 and ’21 seasons, respectively, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. It faced caps on crowd size when it returned home last July, with many season ticket-holders electing to defer their membership until this year.
Last October, the struggling club drew announced home crowds of 7,552 (Chicago), 7,490 (Atlanta), 8,095 (Montreal), and 5,026 (Philadelphia). The Nov. 7 regular-season finale against D.C. United drew an announced attendance of 11,166 as Toronto closed out a dismal 6-18-10 season.
Home debut for Bob Bradley
Saturday will mark the home debut for new Toronto coach Bob Bradley, Michael’s father, who will be in search of MLS regular-season win No. 183. Only New England Revolution coach Bruce Arena and the late Sigi Schmid, both at 240, have won more.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Bob Bradley. “The excitement of just being back but then the preparation for a home opener, especially given the circumstances the past few years, and the connection that’s always been there between the team, the fans and the city, you just feel it every day when guys come in. So we’re really excited to have the chance in front of your fans, to get this thing going.”
TFC plans to mark the plight of Ukraine, currently attempting to stave off the invasion of Russia, at the home opener but declined to specify.
Bob Bradley has coached just one MLS game at BMO Field, leading Los Angeles FC to a 4-2 win before 28,247 on Sept. 1, 2018. Michael Bradley and Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio are the only players from TFC’s starting lineup that day still with the team.
TFC opened the season last weekend with a 1-1 tie at FC Dallas. The Red Bulls, who finished 20 points ahead of Toronto in last year’s standings, won 3-1 at San Jose.
Red Bulls captain Aaron Long expects a fired-up Toronto.
“I mean it’s a big game for them, they are going to come out with so much energy, the same way we are going to be feeling in our home opener, they’re going to feel,” he said. “So, we just have to find a way to match that as the away group and with this group of players, just know who we are going into and kind of go from there.”
Bob Bradley, meanwhile, expects the visitors to showcase what Red Bulls teams are known for — a suffocating, pressing style of play.
“They like the game to be chaos,” he said.
Toronto looks to snap a seven-game winless run (0-3-4) in league play dating back to early October.
The Red Bulls have a streak of their own — unbeaten in five straight meetings (3-0-2) with Toronto. New York has lost just and just one of its last nine games (6-1-2) against TFC including playoffs.
Toronto is 6-16-8, including post-season play in 30 meetings with the Red Bulls since October 2009. On the plus side, TFC is 7-4-7 against New York at BMO Field.
Toronto’s roster remains a work in progress with just 23 first-team players, including the injured Ayo Akinola. Bob Bradley says the 22-year-old striker is expected to resume “some kind of full training” on Monday after recovering from knee surgery.
“We’re looking to add another probably couple of experienced players to help round out our team,” Toronto president Bill Manning said this week.
“Right now he [Bob Bradley] feels pretty good about the group,” he added.
Veteran Genoa defender Domenico (Mimmo) Cristico is expected to be among the reinforcements. The versatile 35-year-old has won 26 caps for Italy.