Winning- it's something every sports organization is chasing. Every move, every decision, and every player chosen is decided on with one goal in mind- to win. At the end of the day, goals and assists don't really mean anything when you're not winning. Just ask Phil Kessel about his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Like remembering your first kiss, first crush or the birth of your first child, winning moments become unforgettable memories, or the foundation of your pride and joy. Simply said, it's what sports fans live for. Toronto FC has a solitary moment of romance in its ten-year existence. The same day Bautista crushed his Game-5 ALDS winning home run, Toronto FC's most loyal fans wept in happiness as the Reds clinched their first playoff berth in franchise history. In 2016, Toronto FC is developing a winning attitude which is spreading across the roster.
The romance of sports is what unites a city and generates pride amongst the locals. I mean, why did Josh Donaldson become a fan favourite in Toronto last year? Yeah, the home runs and all were great. However, when the Blue Jays were a debacle for the first month of the season, it was Donaldson's swagger that captured the hearts of Torontonians. "This isn't the ‘try' league, this is the ‘get it done' league," Donaldson said after a frustrating loss. Fans love winning attitudes and players who demand the best from their teammates. How about Jose Bautista's bold bat-flip to explode every single Torontonian's feelings of elation and excitement? You're always trying to create moments that fans never forget for the rest of their lives. Winning moments define the careers of players, teams and coaches. Winners like Joe Carter, Doug Gilmour and Roberto Alomar will never be forgotten here.
Winning isn't simply the product of goals. It runs deeper than score lines. Winning is an attitude and a mentality. Winners sacrifice personal glory for wins, and look fantastic doing it. Winners just know they will be successful and rise to the occasion when the moments matter more. They hold teammates accountable. They set the mood, expectation and confidence in the dressing room amongst their teammates. Simply put, winning is a way of thought, belief and responsibility. Winning does not equal to replacing a victorious leader in your team, with another midfielder who has potential, or a player who has scored goals for another club. Just ask Arsenal, as they've tried to replace the character and skill of Patrick Viera with world-class midfielder Mohamed Elneny. Yes, that is sarcasm.
You don't win trophies without winning characters. Phil Kessel led the Leafs in every offensive category during his tenure in Toronto, but refused to make a single defensive play. Michael Bradley seemed to only be interested in roaming into the opponent's final third and scoring goals, while leaving the defensive grunt work to inadequate teammates. When placed in defensive positions, Bradley simply didn't look as engaged or focused, sometimes even disinterested. Jozy Altidore scored 13 goals for Toronto FC last year, but what did it get Toronto FC? A bottom playoff seed and an absolute beat down by their rivals-their only playoff appearance.
There's a reason players like Dwayne De Rosario, Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Fernando Torres have seen success at every stage of their careers, wherever they've played. De Rosario won four MLS Cups with two different teams, scoring game-winning goals in two of those finals. Donovan won six MLS cups with two different teams. He also won the CONCACAF Gold Cup four times, lead a Confederation's Cup second placed team and took the US National team into the final eight of a 2002 World Cup. All David Beckham has done his whole career is win. La Liga titles, Champions League, MLS Cups, and Premier League titles are part of a loaded trophy closet. Torres has won the World Cup, European Championship, and Champions League. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to suggest these players were the prime reasons their teams won these trophies. However, these are players who are synonymous with winning and contributed to the winning mentality wherever they went in their careers. They simply love the limelight and perform when the stakes are high. Whether it's diving, biting, or eye gouging, winners just do whatever it takes to win.
Early signs for Toronto FC point to potential for sports romanticism in Toronto. There is a developing winning mentality in Toronto. The aforementioned Michael Bradley has sacrificed offensive glory and been the boss in midfield. Against Dallas in the home opener, Bradley had an 89% passing rate while having the highest number of touches out of any outfield player, with 83. His distribution was immaculate, and his defensive play absolutely dominant. Bradley has been a key defensive piece for the club with the best defensive record in the league. Bradley has made an average of five defensive actions per game this year, compared to three last year. Through the first nine games last season, Bradley made 45 defensive duels. In the first nine games this year, the American has entered 62 defensive duels. Bradley is putting in more grunt work, getting his hands dirty and his team's defensive record is reaping the rewards. After the game against FC Dallas, Bradley spoke like a man you would love to have in your dressing room:
"It's about having a group of guys who come in every day, ready to spill their guts into something- ready to take every challenge that gets thrown their way and embrace it and do it together," he said after the Dallas match. "To work, to compete, to try to improve, to look at yourselves in the mirror in a hard honest way when things don't go your way... to have a group that's tried and trusted in big moments."
It is that kind of mentality that will bring this city success it has never seen. Beside Bradley is Will Johnson, an intense leader throwing hard tackles, keeping teammates accountable while providing skill in the middle of the field. Johnson is a gamer. He is a big game player who shows up to perform each match. You'll never see Johnson take a shift off and leave you wanting more effort. Players like that raise the spirit and compete level of their teammates, making teammates work harder and thus raising the team's performance. Against Dallas, Johnson threw a game-high five tackles, with a game-high 92% passing rate, and was second on his team in touches with 60. The midfield couple of Bradley and Johnson were responsible, stable, creative, and simply dominated the opposing midfield.
Last year, Jozy Altidore scored 15 goals, good enough to lead over ten other MLS clubs in goals. Altidore was still criticised for not fitting into Toronto FC's style of play, and being an outcast on an offense lead by Sebastian Giovinco. I mean, the big target-man played as a winger against New York City FC last year. In 2016, Altidore is finally fitting into a role that helps the team. Usually a traditional number nine, Altidore has played just behind Giovinco to utilise his size in order to create knock downs for the Italian to finish off.
Altidore performed his role admirably, creating opportunities for his teammates while being a threat himself. When asked about another goalless game, Altidore said, "The most important thing here is winning games, not individual accolades. I'm here to win, it's one thing to come here and score goals and lose. Would you rather that? I didn't think so." Altidore will score goals eventually, and in the meantime; he is contributing more than goals and assists would.
Toronto's stars are buying into a defensively responsible system, picking winning over personal success. Youngsters such as Tsubasa Endoh or Marky Delgado are set up for success with leaders on the team leading by example, fighting tooth and nail for points. The culture of winning grows, with dedication to success becoming a way of life. The hope is, that Toronto spreads the winning mentality and creates sports romance for Torontonians starving for something to cheer about.