Will Johnson said something this week that struck a chord in my mind.
“Every now and again, for whatever reason, you don’t have your best game,” he said. “I don’t think it was necessarily the pitch or the lay-off [for the international break]. In a way, we were due for a little bit of a dip in form. We’ve been on a real high, we’ve played some very, very good games, and so we take one on the chin and understand that even though we didn’t play our best, it wasn’t the worst result for us.”
It reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on for a day or so, thinking I’d read a similar quote from another athlete or coach somewhere.
Finally, it clicked: I’d read it from the president of the United States.
Specifically, it was a quote from Barack Obama in an article in the New Yorker published after Donald Trump’s election earlier this month. He was talking about his defeat in the New Hampshire primary when battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008.
Here it is in full:
“There is deep disappointment. In New Hampshire, when I lost, it was only the second election in what proved to be an interminable primary season. And people forget that was actually the night I gave the ‘Yes, we can’ speech. It was in the face of defeat, not victory, that we talked about ‘Yes, we can.’ And I remember flying down to Boston. We had a fund-raiser and I had to speak to a bunch of supporters down there the next day. And [David] Axelrod was surprised. He was, like, ‘You don’t seem that upset.’ And I said, ‘You know, I think this is right. I think this is how it should be. I haven’t earned this yet.’ You don’t go from being a first-term senator, no matter how popular, winning one caucus, and suddenly you’re anointed. The American people are showing some wisdom here in saying, ‘You know what, we got to take this thing out for a spin, we’ve got to get a better sense of how this thing navigates the curves, because that’s what a President is going to need.’”
Okay, presidential elections might a little more important than the MLS playoffs. Just.
But what Obama was talking about is, in a way, the challenge Toronto FC are facing on Wednesday night when the Montreal Impact visit BMO Field. Everything was going so well for TFC through the first two rounds of the playoffs it was barely believable, especially given the context of the club’s miserable history in MLS until its first postseason appearance in 2015. The league-record 7-0 aggregate victory over New York City and the momentum surrounding the team on the back of that tie almost felt too good to be true.
And so it was. You simply don’t win top-level professional championships that easily, and in Montreal everything came crashing back down to earth. Toronto, in Obama’s words, hadn’t earned it yet. But instead of rolling over and seeing all of the hard work of the past eight months and beyond slip through their fingers, they proved that it would take more than one setback to defeat them and fought back to give themselves more than a fighting chance.
It’s what champions do, and now they must do it again. On the back of their first defeat of the playoffs, with a seed of doubt as to Montreal’s ability to hurt them planted in the back of their mind, Toronto must have the courage and resilience to play on their own terms in front of their home fans.
It’s not just a case of being in the zone at kick-off, either; even if the Reds begin the game on the front foot, there will inevitably be a spell at some point within the 90 minutes in which the Impact will put TFC’s championship credentials under the microscope. Not many people talk about it now but before Jozy Altidore’s opening goal in the first leg of the semi-finals, New York City briefly came out of their shell and threatened to steal a priceless away goal.
The Reds rode that period of pressure out and the rest is in the books.
“If you don’t bring the fight in this league first, then you ultimately never get a chance for your big players to shine and your skills and your tactics and all of those things,” Johnson said. “Understand that it’s hard work, grit and determination - all of those things have to come first and, like I said, let the footballing skills that we have show through after we take care of the initial mindset, the initial fight.”
This tie was never going to be straightforward, and Toronto must be ready not only for that initial fight but for a few more still after that. The team that shows the greatest capacity to cope with adversity will be the one truly worthy of playing for it all against the Seattle Sounders on December 10.