Preseason is a time for new beginnings - the chance to start afresh with a belief that anything can happen. That was certainly true for Toronto FC as they opened up their training camp in Bradenton last week.
The troubles and uncertainties that surrounded the club in recent years have been replaced by a new hope and optimism after an incredible offseason transformation that has included the signings of three new Designated Players, Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto.
I was in Florida for Toronto's first training session. The energy and enthusiasm was on a completely different level compared to other years. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the squad has already been assembled and most of the key pieces are already in place. A far cry from a year ago, when Nelsen was heading into his first coaching job with a preseason squad filled with trialists.
"It's a wee bit different, I've got to admit," Ryan Nelsen told me after training in Bradenton. It's nice to have a proper squad together all pulling in the right direction. As you can see by today, the work ethic is there, the character is there and everybody is extremely excited."
The difference compared to 12 months earlier is evident in all areas, but especially in personnel. Over half of the squad currently in Florida were not with the team for preseason in 2013. However, Nelsen and the players are talking up the fact that the core of the team that finished the season is still in place.
"We haven't changed that much, we've probably changed the same as most teams, but we've done it in big names so it makes it even more dramatic. But that's what we had to do with this club. That's why what we did last year had method in our madness. We've got some big names and we will have to gel them in, but it's a progression and we have to keep moving the club forward."
The theme Nelsen's rookie season as head coach was "short-term pain for long-term gain," and things have now changed quickly. With multi-million dollar signings amongst a re-shaped squad, expectations are high. But after dealing with a tumultuous first year with the club, Nelsen laughed off the suggestion that there is pressure on him to find a winning formula quickly.
"There's absolutely no pressure," he said. "Whenever you put yourself in a situation where you've brought in good players, everybody else thinks there is expectation but for us we just try and improve every day. In everything we do, we try to become perfect. Whatever people think from outside we don't really care."
"I knew the league last year but we didn't have the right pieces to be successful. Now I think we are moving in the right direction, but I'm still learning as well. I'll always keep learning. When I stop learning I may as well give up," he said.
There's a new face heavily involved in Toronto's training sessions this preseason. Englishman Adrian Lamb has joined the club as Fitness Coach. He has previously worked with Newcastle United, Preston North End and Aston Villa, and he was at Blackburn Rovers during Ryan Nelsen's time as a player at Ewood Park.
Nelsen told me Lamb's preparation and attention to detail is immaculate, and that was easy to see during my time in Bradenton. He has very clear ideas of what he wants from the players and was impressive in the way he communicated to them. Lamb will bring a very professional approach to the team's conditioning this season and will be a key addition to Nelsen's staff.
In 2013, Toronto FC won just six matches and missed the playoffs by 20 points, but Nelsen and his staff have now been handed the tools they need to turn the ship around. The foundation for success will be laid over the next six weeks, as Nelsen and Co. make sure their team is ready to hit the ground running when the season opens in Seattle on March 15th live on TSN.