If you ask Toronto FC players when they began to focus on returning to the MLS Cup final after last season’s crushing defeat to the Seattle Sounders on penalties, you’ll likely hear the same answer: The day afterwards.
So determined were the Reds to put that loss behind them and ultimately achieve their goal that they barely took their foot off the gas. They returned to training camp just 43 days after the loss.
That drive to return pushed TFC to their first ever Supporters’ Shield and an MLS record 69 regular season points in the process. You could make a strong case that this TFC squad is the best MLS side ever.
But still, that final goal eludes them.
“In a lot of ways it’s been a long year, but we’ve been obsessed with getting back to this game,” said forward Jozy Altidore last week.
TFC’s performance in MLS Cup on Saturday will define their season. They’ll need to lean on their stars, including newcomer and MLS Best XI midfielder Victor Vazquez as well as perennial game-changer Sebastian Giovinco. But when telling the tale of TFC in 2017, there’s more to the Reds than just their stars.
MLS Cup hangover?
For all their accolades this season, including their points record and being tied for second-most goals for in a season, it’s easy to forget TFC stumbled out of the gates. They registered one win, one loss and four draws in their first six games, and scored just seven goals in the process. The hardly looked like the team that was in MLS Cup just a few months earlier.
Frustration was evident in the team’s 2-1 road loss to the Columbus Crew on April 15.
“After how we played in the first 30, it’s a game that should be almost impossible to lose,” said captain Michael Bradley. “We managed, in a span of 10 minutes at the end of the first half, to totally give the game away.”
Mavinga’s rough start
Signed in the offseason, former Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain youth player Chris Mavinga was brought in to be the athletic defender TFC needed in the back. He also stumbled early on, especially during a 2-2 draw on April 8 against Atlanta United. He was put under a microscope after he was caught out of position on both Atlanta goals.
While questions emerged then about Mavinga, he would eventually rebound and put in a season-long performance that should have had him the conversation for MLS Defender of the Year.
“If I’m being honest, if one player has been critiqued on one performance more than he has for his performance against Atlanta, I don’t know who that player is,” TFC coach Greg Vanney would later say.
Giovinco, and TFC, get their groove back
Giovinco scored five goals from free kicks this season and they were all stunning in their own right. But it was his first of the season, one that rang off the bar and in to give TFC a 3-0 lead against a then-strong Chicago Fire side that helped them begin a six-game win streak, that was perhaps the most monumental. Jozy Altidore could only stand and snap his fingers in amazement after the goal. TFC were back.
“I said it before; I think a lot of our previous performances weren’t as solid for ninety minutes as the one tonight,” said Vanney post-game. “I haven’t really seen anybody that has necessarily deserved to beat us along the way. Our record doesn’t necessarily show all of that at this moment.”
Raheem Edwards, future homegrown star
The former Sheridan College midfielder wasn’t a lock to even make the first team out of training camp, but solidified himself in the lineup with seven starts and three assists through nine games from March to May. He was the team’s biggest surprise early on with his electric play down the wing. His ability to create scoring opportunities, all while earning the lowest salary on the team ($53,004), became part of the reason why TFC were known for their depth all season long.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Vanney said of Edwards in April. “He’s got a lot of ability both with the ball and athletically. He uses all of those gifts and the more time he is out there I think the more things he’s starting to recognize and see.
Justin Morrow comes into his own
Signed at the end of the 2013 season, wingback Justin Morrow hasn’t received that much attention as the club transitioned into one of the best in MLS. But this season, Morrow displayed a flair for attacking on the wing and was named into the American national team for the Gold Cup. It would be his first call-up into the national team since 2013. He finished second in MLS Defender of the Year voting and became a reliable presence for TFC.
“Justin’s emergence over the last couple of years is just because he’s become more and more aggressive on the attacking side. He’s always been a competent, solid defender,” said Vanney at Thursday’s MLS Cup press conference. “It’s very difficult to account for a left wingback who’s arriving into the box when you’re dealing with everything else.”
Eight games in 40 days through July and August heat…
…and TFC didn’t lose one of them. With five wins and three draws in an insanely short time span, this became the point in the season where the MLS points record looked like a possibility. But amongst their strong play, TFC showcased a serious, business-like demeanour in training, in which they never got swept up in the hype that was building around them.
“We try to make a statement every game we play and today was no different in terms of our attempt,” Vanney said after TFC’s most convincing win of the season, a 4-0 drubbing of New York City FC at home, “and really it is about being the best version of ourselves and there’s things we continue to get better at and we’re trying to do that every day.”
Bradley and Mavinga show intensity in training
After their only losing streak of the season, a two-game skid in late September, the intensity was brought up during a training session that saw Bradley and Mavinga get visibly upset and share heated words mid-session. It’s the kind of thing that happens on professional teams every day and it was a sign of how serious TFC’s own expectations of themselves actually was.
Bradley dropping into defensive role
Bradley finished sixth in MLS MVP voting this season. It was a positional change that brought the best out of him. With the addition of Vazquez, Bradley was able to drop deep into a holding midfielder role, which is more of how he traditionally lined up before his time with TFC. As a result, he saw his average passes and pass success percentage rise to their highest totals ever with TFC and he impacted the team’s transition from recovery to attack that much more.
“When I first got here, the team wasn’t as good,” Bradley said in August. “Not even close. As a result, there was less structure, there was less organization, and for us to have any real chance to win or be successful, it meant I had to play a role where I went for it in terms of attacking, defending, trying to be aggressive, trying to make plays that made a difference in both attack and defence.”
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